The Beatles: Songwriting
The Beatles have come to TIDAL. As part of our massive celebration of this historic addition to the TIDAL music library — which includes The Beatles Experience, our immersive presentation of their timeless catalogue — journalist and Beatles expert Jeff Slate is writing an ongoing feature series on the history and legacy of the biggest band to ever live.
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There’s no doubt that The Beatles were the greatest band ever to walk the earth.
But without the words and music of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, and George Harrison too, they wouldn’t be so different from their respectable contemporaries, and every successful group that’s come since: A good, tight band with charisma and talent to spare, and a willingness to defy convention, but not much else to separate them from the competition.
When The Beatles first entered the studio with George Martin in June 1962, the producer, best known for the comedy records he’d been making for EMI’s subsidiary label Parlophone, had little hint of the immense talent within Lennon and McCartney — the group’s two budding songwriters were just developing.
They played Martin some of their best, early songs that day, and again when they returned in September, but Martin only rated “Love Me Do” and “P.S. I Love You” as commercially viable. With the release of a single looming, Martin had the band learn the more surefire hit, Mitch Murray’s “How Do You Do It,” for the September session. But the group balked. They wanted to record their own songs, and to succeed or fail on their own terms in the process.
Beloved today, the group’s eventual first A-Side, “Love Me Do,” wasn’t much of a song. But, flush with some regional success and a #17 chart placing as a result, Lennon (with McCartney’s help) delivered the goods for its follow-up.
Recorded in November 1962, “Please Please Me” was a remarkable leap forward for The Beatles by more than one measure, but particularly in terms of songcraft, and a quick one at that.
Inspired by Roy Orbison’s mournful love ballads, Lennon wrote “Please Please Me” as an homage to The Big O’s trademark pleas, but was more than happy to pick up the pace, adding a harmonica hook and Harrison’s instantly-memorable guitar part to the recording. At the end of the session, as legend has it, Martin declared the song the group’s first Number 1. He was right.
By early-1963, Lennon and McCartney, with a bit of success under their respective belts, were already pushing against the ceiling of their early abilities.
They delivered five more originals to the marathon session for the album Please Please Me, recorded over a singe day in February, including the early classic “I Saw Her Standing There.” With another single due, Lennon and McCartney played it safe for the first, and probably last, time, by trying to repeat the success of “Please Please Me,” with their next co-writes, “From Me To You” and “Thank You Girl.” But its follow-up broke every rule that had come before.
“She Loves You” and “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” The Beatles’ next two singles, were monster chart hits. But, more significantly, they found Lennon and McCartney unafraid to try new things — using slang, unusual chord patterns and harmonic voicings, and pushing the boundaries of lyric writing and song structure, generally — and to challenge both themselves and their growing audience.
Within a year of their first published songs they were already throwing away what they’d succeeded with before. It was something they would do time and time again over the course of their partnership, but something that was — and remains — unheard of in pop music, and is the thing that, more than anything, sets them apart from the rest.
By the time of the group’s second album, With The Beatles, Lennon and McCartney were turning in songs that, on paper, had almost nothing to do with the songs they sat next to in the record’s tracklist — and that again defied the structural conventions typical of the day’s pop music strategy.
“It Won’t Be Long” and “All My Loving” are perfect examples, but even a song they considered a throwaway, “I Wanna Be Your Man,” written as a song for drummer Ringo Starr and given away as the first hit for the Rolling Stones, was head and shoulders above what the competition were writing. George Harrison, too, got in on the act, penning the tentative “Don’t Bother Me.”
But it was on the album released to accompany The Beatles’ film debut, A Hard Day’s Night, that proved Lennon and McCartney were an unbeatable songwriting team. Of the record’s 13 songs, none were less than stellar. While Lennon dominated the partnership at this point, as the principal author of nine of its tracks, it was still truly a partnership. Lennon and McCartney needed each other as foils, and thrived on the competition of trying to best each other in coming up with the next A-Side.
A Hard Day’s Night includes several Lennon classics, to be sure — the title track, “I Should Have Known Better,” “If I Fell” among them — but McCartney’s “Can’t Buy Me Love” and the gorgeous “And I Love Her” will forever sit on greatest hits compilations and fan playlists, for they are truly as perfect as songs get: Simple, memorable and identifiable, creating an instant connection with the listener.
Beatles For Sale, “Eight Days A Week,” “I Feel Fine” and even the waltz “Baby’s In Black” followed later in 1964, but it was with Help! the following year that the pair made their next major leap forward.
Lennon’s literal cry for help in the title track, and his Dylan-inspired ode to manager Brian Epstein, “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away,” plus the proto-metal “Ticket To Ride,” are among his best, as is McCartney’s “I’ve Just Seen A Face,” and George Harrison’s “I Need You.” But it was “Yesterday” — buried as track six on Side Two of the original LP — that is the song that, if Lennon and McCartney never wrote another one, would justify an entry in any book on music history.
In fact, books have been written about “Yesterday,” a song that McCartney has said came to him in a dream and that he played and played, over and over, to anyone who would listen, just to make sure that he hadn’t heard it somewhere else, until his fellow Beatles begged him to stop. Whatever trepidation or insecurities McCartney harbored, “Yesterday” is a masterpiece. At just 24 years old, McCartney had written a song, full of longing and universal in scope, that reached across all age groups in its popularity, both in 1965, when The Beatles were still considered a flash in the pan, and for all time.
Another giant step forward followed, closing out 1965 with the single “Day Tripper” b/w “We Can Work It Out” and the album Rubber Soul, highlighted by Lennon’s intimate “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown),” yearning “Nowhere Man” and elegiac answer to “Yesterday,” “In My Life,” plus McCartney’s “Michelle” and “I’m Looking Through You.”
The group reached new heights in 1966, even as they faced intense scrutiny over Lennon’s (arguably true) comment to a London reporter that The Beatles meant more to kids that organized religion, and they would ultimately quit touring to focus on writing and recording new material.
The single “Paperback Writer” b/w “Rain” showcased a letter from an aspiring pulp novelist to an erstwhile publisher on its A-Side, but it was more the production than the quality of the songs that set it apart. Revolver, released in August 1966, however, showed Lennon and McCartney, not to mention Harrison, reaching yet another seemingly untoppable peak in the development of their songwriting powers.
McCartney’s baroque “Eleanor Rigby” picked up where “Yesterday” had left off, but it was his songs “For No One,” “Good Day Sunshine” and “Here, There and Everywhere,” that Lennon cited as some of Paul’s finest work, in the Playboy interview published shortly before his death in 1980.
For his part, Lennon’s dreamscapey “I’m Only Sleeping,” LSD-informed “She Said She Said” and the remarkable, experimental album closer, “Tomorrow Never Knows,” were also some of his best writing to date. Add to those Harrison’s biting social commentary “Taxman” and India-inspired “Love You To,” and you have perhaps the greatest collection of Beatles songwriting on record.
That it was followed, just six months later in early 1967, by the seismic artistic shift represented by the release of the double A-Side single “Penny Lane” / “Strawberry Fields Forever,” in which McCartney and Lennon both stretched the boundaries of anything anyone had tried before on a pop single, is almost beyond comprehension.
But 1967 would be another banner year for the now peerless songwriting duo.
Lennon would deliver “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” and McCartney “She’s Leaving Home” for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and the pair would piece together two completely disparate ideas into their greatest co-write for the album’s closing track, “A Day In The Life.”
Lennon would then deliver the Summer Of Love call to arms “All You Need Is Love” as Britain’s contribution to the first global satellite television broadcast, as well as a song that was unlike anything that had ever come before, “I Am The Walrus”, for the soundtrack to the group’s experimental film Magical Mystery Tour, which also included McCartney’s classic “The Fool On The Hill.” The duo was unstoppable.
While Flower Power flourished all around them, The Beatles were stripping things down to the essentials, literally.
Lennon and Harrison took guitars they had adorned with psychedelic art and stripped them down to the bare wood. And in early-1968, along with McCartney and Starr, they retreated to the foothills of the Himalayas to sit at the feet of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi to commune with nature and study Transcendental Meditation.
Getting away from the madness of their super-celebrity lives was rejuvenating and inspiring for them all. They wrote nearly 30 songs, all told, and convened at Harrison’s Esher bungalow in May to record demos of them. Not long after they began work on what would become The Beatles, known to nearly everyone as The White Album.
The breadth of material the three principal songwriters in The Beatles created in India, and immediately after, is astonishing.
McCartney knocked out the rockers “Back In The USSR” and “Helter Skelter,” but also the achingly intimate “I Will” and “Mother Nature’s Son,” as well as the sprightly “Rocky Racoon,” “Martha My Dear” and “Honey Pie.” Lennon met McCartney’s artistic challenge, delivering “Dear Prudence,” “Glass Onion,” “Yer Blues” and “Sexy Sadie” (about the Maharishi himself), but also the ode to his long-lost mother, and new intimate Yoko Ono, “Julia”, as well as “Goodnight,” a gorgeous lullaby for Ringo to sing. Harrison wrote “Long, Long, Long” and his first unquestionable masterpiece, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
There were more, of course, but these were songs that were peerless in execution. While Jimi Hendrix, Cream, the Doors, the Who and the Rolling Stones were all hitting their stride, only The Beatles were operating so consistently and so often at such a lofty artistic plane as songwriters. As hot and heavy as the competition was in 1968, they were untouchable.
On top of it all, McCartney penned “Hey Jude,” a paean to Lennon’s young son Julian, who found himself caught in the middle of his parents’ ugly divorce, and Lennon wrote “Revolution” in answer to every member of the counter-culture who had come calling with his or her hand out, and released it as a single. Even in a year when the two were reaching the true height of their writing powers, these two songs are remarkable, and represent, on one single, everything that was great about The Beatles as a group and Lennon and McCartney as a songwriting team.
Recorded not long after the release of the White Album, amidst much rancor, Let It Be sat on a shelf until 1970. But it contained some real gems. McCartney’s “Let It Be” is simple, elegant and beautiful, eclipsing even the gorgeous “The Long and Winding Road.” His veiled ode to Lennon – or was it to Linda McCartney? – “Two Of Us” is excellent, as is the jaunty “Get Back.” Lennon’s “Don’t Let Me Down” carries a directness he would develop and master on 1970′s John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, and the pair would cobble together a last co-write on “I’ve Got A Feeling” and resuscitate “One After 909″ from that long ago audition for George Martin in 1962.
But it is Abbey Road that was truly The Beatles’ final, perfect artistic statement, and the last place to see their songwriting gifts in such stark relief.
The album’s opener is trademark John Lennon. Who else could take a Chuck Berry riff, throw in some Goons-style wordplay, and come up with a swampy rocker like “Come Together,” yet claim it was a campaign song for LSD guru Timothy Leary’s threatened presidential bid? “Mean Mr. Mustard” and “Polythene Pam” from the Side Two medley, and the Side One closer “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” aren’t among Lennon’s best, but they’re still head and shoulders above what most band’s were passing off as songs in the post-psychedelic era.
For his part, McCartney had a few up his sleeve. “Oh! Darling” rocked like Little Richard and “You Never Give Me Your Money” chronicled his ongoing war with his bandmates and their new manager, Allen Klein. But it was “The Big One,” as it was first called, the Side Two medley that McCartney crafted with George Martin from bits of songs and ideas into an astonishing whole, that was his true contribution and accomplishment on Abbey Road.
Most fittingly, though, it was George Harrison, who had toiled as a junior partner in the shadow of Lennon and McCartney, who stole the show on Abbey Road. His contributions, the glorious breath of fresh air that is “Here Comes The Sun,” and perhaps the most beautiful love song ever written, “Something,” stand above all the other magical moments and marvelous songs on the album, and still rank today amongst the fans’ favorites of all The Beatles’ songs, consistently placing in the top of TIDAL’s streaming charts.
“And in the end, the love you make is equal to the love you take.”
What other band would have the temerity to make such a bold statement as its final words to the public at large? More significantly, what other band could pull it off?
John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison had earned the right to say it, and to have it mean something for the ages. The songs they wrote, from “She Loves You” and “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” “Yesterday” and “In My Life,” “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Penny Lane” and “A Day In The Life,” to “Let It Be,” “Here Comes The Sun” and “Something,” will stand forever as some of the greatest songs ever written.
When their contemporaries and rivals during their heyday have turned to dust and are nothing but footnotes, The Beatles will remain for all time as the beacon of popular artistic expression in the late-20th century. And whether their songs are played by kids in a garage, thrashing them out loud and strong, or by orchestras in symphony halls, the lasting impact of those melodies and words will remain, and we will be forever indebted to them for it.
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Frequent TIDAL contributor Jeff Slate is a New York City-based solo singer-songwriter and music journalist. He has written intimate portraits of The Beatles as a group and as solo artists, and about many other rock legends, for publications like Esquire, Rolling Stone and the fanzine Beatlefan, and is a go-to expert for many Beatles-related radio shows. Jeff has appeared at Beatles events and conventions in New York and Liverpool and is a well-known collector of rock ‘n’ roll books and bootlegs, with an encyclopedic knowledge of all things Dylan and The Beatles.
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