They deserve their legendary status. They were as good as their strongest supporters will tell you — often better, in fact. Their existence seems so inevitable now, so many years later, with every note and every “Yeah!” of every song still coursing through the veins of millions around the world. The Beatles appealed to every type of person in every place, and their unbelievable music is as fresh now as it was when it was new.
How did they create music so accomplished, and unrestrictive, and so consistently dynamic amidst the absolutely unknowable (to us non-Beatles) hurricane that was Beatlemania and the massive, incessant scrutiny that went with it? They couldn’t even follow the example of any former huge pop group stars with that level of fame because there weren’t any. That they could tune all that out and focus on the task at hand in the studio deserves as much credit as the music itself.
But they didn’t always get it right, and they weren’t always flush with new ideas when it came time to hit the Record button at Abbey Road Studios. They were masterful editors, but not perfect. Lots of dross was jettisoned as album sequences were decided and song takes chosen from — there will be plenty of discarded ideas when experimenting as heavily as the Beatles did, after all — but some clunkers remain on those albums. Some half-realized ideas, or poor ideas to begin with, or faithful documents of situations that turned out to be unpleasant, remain.
These less-than-stellar tracks benefit from their placement beside the other 98% of the catalog; rather than being weakest links, the Beatles’ weakest links are strengthened by the coattails of the classics.
This is a list of Beatles tracks that don’t rise to the level one might expect. Only originally released tracks are included — studio run-throughs, live takes and stuff left on the cutting room floor don’t count, so for that reason (and the fact that I like “Free As A Bird” and “Real Love”) the Anthologies are excluded, as are the BBC sessions. Also, the famous track “Revolution IX” isn’t on here because it is so unusual, and like the self-consciously ridiculous “Good Night” that follows it, it may not be the most pleasant to listen to but I wouldn’t have The White Album any other way.
1. “Revolution 1” by The Beatles
The fast, fuzzed-out single version of this John Lennon song is one of the greatest things the Beatles ever recorded, even if it was at the behest of the record company, who thought this take was too slow and boring.
Chalk one up for the corporation: they were right. The White Album take of “Revolution” that opened side 4 of the original vinyl was a real downer compared to the single. If it were another song, the tempo, instrumentation, and entire laid-back but solidly electric vibe of this song would be fine, maybe even great; but it will inevitably be compared to its other version, and will invariably lose.
John attempted a Meaningful Grandeur with this song, in its simple chord structure (whose twist, the descending “ain’t gonna make it with anyone a-ny-hoooow” part, gives goosebumps in the sped-up tempo of the ‘other’ version) and its overtly political lyrics. And there is a certain elegance to the White Album version. But being surrounded by such deathless classics as George’s “Long, Long, Long” and “Savoy Truffle”, and John’s own “Cry Baby Cry”, “Revolution I” is a pain in the ass.
2. “Here, There And Everywhere” by The Beatles
It would be easy, and unfair, to simply populate this list with Paul’s fluffier Beatles moments (though the temptation is strong). So I’ve tried to choose some carefully, the worst offenders.
Alongside the stunning, stinging LSD popcraft of the rest of the Beatles’ best album, “Here, There and Everywhere” stands as the greatest argument for peer pressure of all. At the time, Paul was the lone Beatle not to have taken LSD, and as he watched his friends coming up with “Love You To” and “She Said, She Said”, surely he must have felt left out.
Especially when one of his major contributions to Revolver was this schmaltzy, pointless cup of sugar. Paul’s reputation for such perfectly-crafted garbage is entirely deserved; it’s even stranger when one realizes that that same Beatle was responsible for Sgt. Pepper, the Abbey Road medley, “Helter Skelter” — and, from the same album as this track, the amazing “Eleanor Rigby” and “For No One”.
Paul indeed succumbed to the dark side, dosing himself soon after this album was released and embarking on a (small-scale, all things considered) drug-led trip around the Summer of Love and beyond. He never lost his tendency to revert to string-laden boredom, though. How odd that he took such legendary exception to Phil Spector’s adding strings and harp to Let It Be’s “The Long And Winding Road” (I never got that myself — Paul, of all people).
When I was a kid and listened to this song, I kept expecting the opening lines to be:
To lead a better life
I need a better wife!
An opportunity missed. This song is merely an unwanted breather between the gold nuggets on the rest of Revolver.
3. “This Boy (Ringo’s Theme)” by The Beatles
This is an exercise in three-part harmony, and in that it is good. But stupid lyrics (even for early Beatles) and a boring, predictable musical structure give this song a status of “pleasant but uninspiring”.
Like “Act Naturally”, this track ended up being a somewhat cynical ploy to hype Ringo Starr’s “lovable loser” persona, which apparently came in large part from his naturally (if misleadingly) “sad” facial expression. But this was in name only; the song was not written for nor sung by the drummer, only the parenthetical mention of his name on the album tied it to him.
The song’s best part, the soaring middle section sung convincingly by John, almost saves the track. But, alas, it too feels somehow too comfortable, too expected. Interesting, but ultimately Beatles-by-numbers.
4. “Within You Without You” by The Beatles
This song gives Sgt. Pepper a lot of its scope, no doubt. The album has rockers and lush ballads, sunny psych-pop and hard rock, and this track featuring a feast of Indian instruments adds an exotic, unusual dimension to the proceedings.
But it pales considerably next to the far more successful “Love You To” and “The Inner Light”, George’s other Beatles-era forays into real Indian music (“Norwegian Wood” was a sitar guest-starring with the Beatles, not an Indian song per se). Somehow, “Within You, Without You”‘s hippie musings (which actually have held up extremely well, even after the party) and gentle, oozing melodies belong on another band’s album. It’s excellent, in its way, but it’s not for the Beatles.
George would later say that his LSD intake was so great in the latter half of ’67 that he didn’t remember creating Magical Mystery Tour; this song marks the beginning of this disassociation. He quickly returned from the beyond, putting his experiences in perspective and finding his muse again, but here he is searching, striking out boldly but somehow not finding himself. Not yet, not here.
5. “Act Naturally” by The Beatles
I know Ringo had to have at least one song per LP. I even support the idea. His voice is warm, his humor is always evident, and he is impossible to dislike.
But this cover of a country song just falls flat. Ringo was (and is) a true blue country & western fan, and his choice of song for the Help! LP was almost certainly from the heart.
Ringo sings admirably here, and the band chugs along lamely but supportively. The lyrics, a navel-gazing set of self-recriminations that the singer is wallowing in, rather than lamenting, are typical country fare; here, they seem to be a crass exercise in furthering Ringo’s “lovable loser” persona, self-promotion that the Beatles never seemed at all interested in otherwise.
The Beatles wrote better stuff for Ringo; Ringo would write better stuff for himself before the breakup (the much more successful C&W; “Don’t Pass Me By” and “Octopus’s Garden”) but “Act Naturally” was a poor idea. The Beatles and their drummer learned their lesson, if not immediately (see “What Goes On”).
6. “Baby You’re A Rich Man” by The Beatles
This track is not unlistenable, and can sometimes be quite enjoyable. But it never escapes being monotonous and overly noisy. Headache-inducing, in the worst of times.
As the 1966-7 Year of Discovery wore on, everything got excessive. The drugs, the pursuit of newness at the expense of basic rationality, most of the music — even the Beatles started to lose their way, if only slightly.
Magical Mystery Tour was maybe not the best project the group could have embarked upon, but amid the success of Sgt. Pepper, the death of Brian Epstein, and the trips to India to find themselves™, even the Beatles appeared suddenly rudderless.
The album that accompanied the TV special of the same name had some of the Beatles’ best tracks — the pre-Pepper single “Strawberry Fields Forever”/”Penny Lane”, “I Am The Walrus” — as well as some pleasant psychedelic moments (the group-composed jam “Flying”, George’s swirling, dense “Blue Jay Way”).
But John Lennon’s “Baby You’re A Rich Man” was a monotony of shouting rather than singing; repetition rather than raga; promise rather than profundity. John’s lyrics, where they do diverge from the main themes of “How does it feel to be one of the beautiful people?” and the song’s title, are actually excellent.
How often have you been there?
(Often enough to know)
What did you see when you were there?
(Nothing that doesn’t show)
But one can’t shake the heavy feeling that these lyrics don’t relate to anything, aren’t from the inspired part of the composer’s brain but rather the rote, experienced part. Sometimes, being one of the beautiful people means coasting on your laurels. “Baby You’re A Rich Man” is indulgent and annoying.
7. “Rocky Raccoon” by The Beatles
The sprawling, genre-hopping White Album is thrilling because of its array of musical styles, not in spite of it. Paul’s contributions were about the strongest here of any Beatles album.
But this irritating, faux-everything acoustic “Americana” ballad just reeks of insincerity. Any American kid could feel the real lure of cowboy life more deeply than Paul did on this unconvincing tale of a love triangle in the “Black Mountain Hills of Dakota”, a phrase that doesn’t even make any geographical sense and throws up red flags even before the song gets underway proper.
I’m all for letting artists slide in the name of poetic license, and I have no problem with genre exercises and musical exploration, but “Rocky Raccoon” is oddly offensive for its pursuit of style over substance, particularly as it fails in its style. Freddie Blassie’s 80s novelty song “Pencil-Necked Geek” achieved a more believable cowboy vibe, for God’s sake.
I used to not mind this song at all, and maybe even like it, but as time has gone on I’ve soured on it considerably. The alternate take on Anthology 3 made it even worse, exposing further facets of the inauthentic guise Paul struggled to adopt on this most aggravating of tracks.
8. “What Goes On” by The Beatles
Well, it’s quite a bit better than Ringo’s take on “Act Naturally”, but this tedious track from the otherwise untouchable Rubber Soul shows that the Beatles still didn’t have their heart in this style of music. The only Beatles track credited to Lennon/McCartney/Starkey, this Ringo vehicle is the very definition of unfinished.
Too-long phrases (“teeeeeeeearin’ me apart”, just get on with it!) sit uncomfortably beside very able but lifeless harmonizing from the more gifted singers in the group. The guitar licks are excellent, and their chirpy staccato twang is by far the best thing about “What Goes On”; other than that bright point, though, this is the embarrassed cousin of the album’s other tracks. Some Beatles songs failed because they dared to try for the sun, but this one didn’t accompany Icarus on his trip; it didn’t even get off the couch.
9. “Yes It Is” by The Beatles
Very similar to “This Boy”, both in musical style, tempo, and reason for being on this list, “Yes It Is” at least features better lyrics than poor Ringo’s boring ‘theme’. A despairing lament about the sadness the singer feels upon seeing a red sweater, which reminds him of what his ex-girlfriend was wearing when she left, “Yes It Is” features great volume-pedal guitar accents.
But the song appears to simply be an excuse for said six-string accents; without them, this would be exceedingly boring. Like the Beatles’ experience as a rock band in the clubs of Hamburg gave them a basic skill set that carried them effortlessly throughout their careers, their best songs were excellent even without gimmicky instrumentation — the Beatles’ versions were fantastic, but the songs themselves would be great sung by any ol’ person who could play an acoustic guitar. Not so “Yes It Is”.
The Beatles and George Martin usually knew full well when they were adding an interesting audio dimension to a good song, and when they were trying to polish a turd, and usually chose wisely. “Yes It Is” sort of sits on the threshold of those two approaches, and because its underlying structure is dull, the finished product remains similarly dull. Fun to revisit occasionally, but not likely to make the cut when I’m listening to the Beatles on shuffle in iTunes.
10. “Only A Northern Song” by The Beatles
More musical excess from George. Hilarious lyrics aside (even better on the Anthology outtake), “Only A Northern Song” drags on way too long, a crowded, clanging dirge without a hook or even any scenery to break up the trip. For a band and musician that helped usher in the British style of psychedelia, the Beatles and George Harrison sure weren’t very good at it anymore by 1968.
Having helped pioneer feedback, tape loops, backwards guitar, and a host of other studio innovations, here George takes all the best ideas of the preceeding two years and turns them inside-out, ruining nearly every one of them in the process, applying them haphazardly on a track that doesn’t pass the acoustic-guitar test.
Random tape loops can be a great thing, as they were on “Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!” and “Tomorrow Never Knows”; here they sound awful. Curious bridges and obtuse middle eights and jarring changes in structures and styles can work within a single track, as they did on “A Day In The Life” and “Penny Lane”; here you just want it all to end. If you’re going to be goofy, at least enjoy it, as on “You Know My Name (Look Up The Number)”.
And what about the lyrics? They defend the song’s right to be “out of key” with chords “going wrong” and the band’s right to be “not quite right”. Some kind of metaphysical description of proceedings that may be impressive from a philosophical point of view, but all those attributes are indeed applicable to this song, and not in a good, enjoyable way.
At first not so bad, halfway through “Only A Northern Song” you just want the damn thing to go away.