Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Deconstructing the Beatles: Estivator's Top 27 Dearly Beloved

The reports are everywhere of iTunes' upcoming release of the remastered Beatles number ones, which of course reminds me that I have never circled back from my deconstruction of their songs earlier this year to report on my favorites. The exercise was originally prompted by my observation that the typical "top 100" or "best of" lists are invariably miles apart from the songs I cherish all these years later.

I may always second guess myself, but now is as good a time as any to just come out with it, and since there were 27 number ones, I'll share the 27 that are the closest to my heart - or rather, songs I'd be heartbroken if I never heard again and play often. Other than avoiding the monotony that afflicted too many of their later songs, that's my only criterion. Here goes: 

A Day in the Life - The pinnacle of what the Lads could do as studio musicians with George Martin and Geoff Emerick presiding, minus the self-indulgence of so much of the later fare. Can still remember what it felt like to hear this for the first time; it was destabilizing, mind-blowing and awe-inspiring - no drugs required.
A Hard Day's Night - One of the best examples of Lennon & McCartney's early craft which, coupled with the movie, pretty much had me and millions of others losing their minds the summer of 1964. There was nothing out there like it, and it was much more sophisticated than it probably seemed at the time.
Abbey Road Medley - How all of the disparate elements of this medley work so well together is beyond me. I just know it will never get old, its alchemy interpreted to everyone's delighted shock by Steven Tyler at the Kennedy Center recognition of Paul McCartney last year.
And Your Bird Can Sing - It gave me the shivers then, it gives me the shivers now. Gorgeous to the nth power from the standpoint of vocals and guitars.
Eleanor Rigby - Probably my first indication that things weren't always going to stay the same with the Beatles and me. A show-stopper then and now.
For No One - McCartney at his absolute best. A brief but gut-wrenching look inside the devastation of dying love.
Girl - And on the subject of love, pop songs can be so generic. Beatles' songs were the opposite, this being one of the best examples of the power of getting specific, with the added benefit of the stunning musicality.  
Help! - As the other "movie song," I can't not include this. Everything about it is indelibly imprinted on me. You had to be there.
Hey Bulldog - A song that barely registered with me at the time that I have come to adore. Don't know what it's about, don't care. Never fails to increase my endorphin level. 
I Saw Her Standing There - Where it all began for me. If I could go back to the moment when I heard this - and McCartney's scream - for the first time, I would do it in a skinny minute.
I Should Have Known Better - For 2:45, starting with John's harmonica intro, I am awash in endorphins and singing at the top of my lungs.
I'll Be Back - Unrequited love tied up in an exquisitely somber bow.
It Won't Be Long - Simple. Exuberant. With many of the qualities of She Loves You, only better.
I've Just Seen A Face - Proof that McCartney didn't have to resort to sappiness to convey upbeat emotions. Also one of his best, the wizardry he was capable of was never more apparent. As an aside, my friend Harvey Gold has interpreted this movingly in an altogether different tempo, to me demonstrating that the song can be understood on many levels beyond the obvious.
Kansas City (Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey) - No way you could doubt McCartney's rock and roll roots with his raucous handling of this medley first imagined by Little Richard.
No Reply - Another non-generic song about the universal problem of betrayal. Nails it. 
Nowhere Man - They were at the top of their form as a cohesive singing group on this. What a sound, and the lyrics are as powerful today, perhaps even more so.
Oh! Darling - I love my love songs with that hard edge. This delivers on every level with McCartney again reminding us what he could do as a rocker when he put his mind to it.
Roll Over Beethoven - George Harrison paying unabashed homage to Chuck Berry sounds as joyous today as it did then.
There's A Place - Tom Petty once remarked that when John and Paul sang lead in unison, as they do on this, they almost created another voice. It could rearrange your molecules. 
This Boy - The power of John Lennon's solo in this rocks my world.
We Can Work It Out - As emotionally resonant and authentic as anything they ever did in this category.
While My Guitar Gently Weeps - Although I don't think of this as a Beatles song because it is so pervasively a George production, nonetheless it came out on their watch. Call me trite if you will, but this is a masterpiece by any measure. 
You Can't Do That - One of their "I'll kick your ass" songs that they excelled at but probably aren't generally associated with. Fabulous lyrics and overall construction. 
You Know My Name, Look Up the Number - I know it's ridiculous, but the sublime goofiness of this song quite simply makes me grin from ear to ear. Worth its weight in gold for all that.
You've Really Got A Hold On Me - Another favorite cover. I didn't know what I was listening to at the time, but this interpretation of the Smokey Robinson classic was life-altering, one of the many doors that opened to kick-start my lifelong love of the music of black artists.
You're Gonna Lose That Girl - The call and response construction of this, another ass-kicker, makes it one of my very favorites, along with its parting crescendo. Fabulous.


Chuck Johnston said...

I won't argue with you, Wendy; I don't know that I could narrow my list down to just 27. I'm a little disappointed that "In My Life" isn't in there; but that's because it means so much to ME. I have most of their music on my Favorites.

wendy said...

If "In My Life" was on my list, I wouldn't be me, dear Chuck. Don't be disappointed ;) I truly am not a fan of the more sentimental stuff. Just the way I'm wired ... and you've had a much different life than I've had.

Dominic said...

I've been listening to Please Please Me lately, and noticing how incredibly all their stars were aligned even early on--talent, skill, showmanship, production, etc. And, as your list shows, they were masters with covers. My 2 favorite songs on Please are Anna (Go with Him) and Baby It's You. I can't get over how much they put into the songs that weren't even theirs. Except that those songs became theirs when they were done.

wendy said...

Wholeheartedly agree, Dom. Did you see the earlier post I wrote on the covers - I think they are grossly underrated, likely for no other reason than that they are covers. I also like Chains on PPM. Have you heard Arthur Alexander's original version of Anna - it should be on the youtubes somewhere.

KarmaSartre said...

Great write-up, Wendy. It's funny, your descriptions fit so well, even if the song choice were different. For example, your Bull Dog description is just how I feel about Baby You're a Rich Man. The I Should Have Know Better description really captured my feeling about it, and I felt the same way about Tell Me Why. And You've Really Got a Hold on Me -- exactly how I felt hearing Money. With such a vast, wonderful catalogue, they find different ways to reach each of our hearts. Thank you for this wonderful tribute to the power of these songs.

For some excellent Beatles' cover, I recommend Kenny Rankin's Blackbird and Penny Lane.

H. Harvey said...

Thanks for including my humble effort in your piece. It's funny how many people loved it, and the only way I could respond, with no false humility whatsoever was, "It's the song." A great joyous tune the way they do it, and yet so very suggestive of sadness and overwhelming emotion when slowed down.
I find it great that the two repeating thoughts throughout this entry concern your endorphins, and how life altering these songs were.
I couldn't agree more, and you capture the absolute point of it all. The talent, energy, timing... an harmonic convergence of nuclear endorphin stimulation (in both freaked out girls and shockingly unashamed boys), combined with a remarkable talent, facility, and inate understanding of how it ALL works, indeed life changing to such a huge number of kids,to so many more, ultimately, than just one generation. They got our big brothers and sisters, and our nieces, nephews and kids alike, and it hasn't actually ended yet... which is why everything you wrote about every song you chose rings so true.
Well met, Wendy. Thanks

Chuck Vella said...

Wendy, so well done. Like Mr. Johnston, we could quibble over this song or that, but it's just cavilling.
Your commentary on each helps greatly.

wendy said...

Glad I can be the catalyst for everyone's Beatling memories - always a source of reverie and woolgathering!

Holly A Hughes said...

This would be very close to my personal list of 27, Wendy -- bravo! So glad you included For No One. I could write a thesis about how brilliant that song is -- the vowel play, the key changes, the way the music perfectly captures how unsettled he feels emotionally at that fragile moment. Some days I don't think that Paul McCartney himself has a clue about how really good he can be!