Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Happy Beatles Day!

With the launch of The Beatles Rock Band, as well as the release of remastered Beatles music, I thought I'd take a break from the usual blog fodder for a countdown of my personal favorite Beatles' songs.

"Words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup." So begins Across the Universe, a beautiful and hauntingly poetic song written by John Lennon in the late 60's. There is no question that Lennon had a gift with words, but here he paired his lyric imagery with a melody that was both hypnotic and seductive.

There is probably no song that has affected me more than A Day in the Life. This time Lennon's lyrics are straight forward as he tells three separate stories. He seems to be reaching his hand out through the speakers, to take you to a new place where you would see and feel things you'd never experienced before. Brilliantly broken up by a change in tempo and tone with Paul McCartney's brief interlude, the song builds musically to a literal crescendo (created by playing an orchestra's warm-up backwards).

For No One was written by McCartney, but no reason to hold that against a song with a musical hook that still gets me forty years later. First released on one of my favorite Beatles' albums, Revolver, the song is a gem. The descending notes of the clavichord, the French horn solo, the sweet, unadulterated sound of Paul's voice, combines for a sad, beautiful song.

Beginning with the most memorable starting chord in all of music, how can you not love A Hard Day's Night? Putting aside the lyric simplicity (rhyming dog and log was not one of Lennon's crowning achievements), the song nevertheless epitomizes the excitement, energy and vibrancy of the Beatles. It's fast-paced, easily memorable, and a true collaboration (unlike most Lennon/McCartney songs, this one really was written with the help of both). Just the sound of Lennon's voice moaning "ahhh" before repeating the title is enough to make this a favorite. But the story of the title's derivation -- coming from one of Ringo Starr's malapropisms -- makes the song even more endearing. And enduring.

Another song that is also the title of a Beatles' movie, Help! also deserves inclusion on this list. The vocal overdubbing created a layered and intense sound that gave more intensity to the desperate lyrics. "And now my life has changed in oh so many ways," was probably the understatement of the year. And to have the ultimate supergroup convey feelings the rest of us ordinary folk felt (echoing insecurity and doubt) was both liberating and disconcerting.

I'm embarrassed to admit it, but I like I Will. It's a sweet, sappy love song, written by McCartney for Linda. But unlike his truly awful Silly Love Songs written post-Beatles, this is actually a wonderful, pure admission of devotion. Who wouldn't want a song like that to be written for them? Lennon wrote a similarly "madly in love" song for Yoko years later, Oh Yoko, which I'd include as a favorite were it not a solo effort. And I'll give a nod to George Harrison for his similarly themed, Byrds-esque If I Needed Someone.

"There are places I remember, all my life though some have changed." In My Life. Is there another song that both grabs you by the throat and touches your heart as much as this song? It is a reminiscence, it is a love song, it is a plaint, it is a celebration. It is Lennon laid bare.

George Harrison's guitar introduces an urgently paced, buoyant I've Just Seen a Face. Falling? Yes, Paul, we were falling every time we heard your happy, heavily-Liverpudlian-accented voice go almost country as you professed your love.

By contrast, Julia is almost a dirge. A love song to his dead mother, Lennon again did what he did best -- open up his heart and lay it all out for us. There appeared to be no filter, no need to hide or hedge when he wrote a song. He put what he felt out there, this time in a strange mix of lullaby and prayer.

In Let it Be, McCartney sings of his own departed mother, "mother Mary," whose lasting influence is to help strengthen him in "times of trouble." The piano introduction is almost hymnal in tone and the song, with its angelic backing vocals and gentle melody, seems somehow sacred. Then the electric guitar and drums come in and shakes things up. This is no old-time gospel music, this is something else.

Lennon oozed sex in Norwegian Wood. Released on the album Rubber Soul, Lennon starts out naughtily :"I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me?" Introducing the sitar to Western ears, the song was unlike anything being heard in 1965. And the band, who had started out with innocent songs like the virginal I Want to Hold Your Hand, was now opening up a whole new direction. Lennon's voice was full of wry sensuality and his lyrics admitted to multiple indiscretions. The Beatles were definitely moving in a new direction.

You've Got to Hide Your Love Away has my favorite Lennon vocal. Pained, angry, demoralized, he sums up all the feelings of a failed relationship even down to the resigned, sardonic laugh at his own misfortune.

These are just a few of the songs that I will never tire of and it's nice to have an excuse to celebrate them.