The Beatles: The Singles
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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The Beatles’ story is a remarkable one, and can be seen from so many different vantage points that it can be overwhelming to even diehard fans.
But more than the band’s films, amazing songwriting gifts, chemistry as a band and with their producer George Martin, or even the albums they made between 1963 and 1970, the singles they made — beginning with “Love Me Do” in 1962 and ending with “The Long and Winding Road” in 1970 — tell the real story of The Beatles, and are the key to understanding why they hold such a unique place in rock history and popular culture.
One hundred years from now, when all but a handful of The Beatles’ contemporaries are even an historical footnote, they will stand as the musical and cultural benchmark of the 20th Century. And it will be the singles, handily compiled on the album Past Masters, as well as the multi-million selling 1, that will be the most lasting evidence of John, Paul, George and Ringo’s amazing legacy.
Remarkably, very few of The Beatles’ singles are included on albums.
While that may seem strange, or even self-defeating, in today’s hyper-marketed world, it was pretty much par for the course in the U.K. music scene in the 1960s. While in America it was fairly commonplace for an album to include only 12 songs, with a few being A- and B-sides, under a typical recording contract in England artists were expected to supply two 14-track long playing albums and another couple singles every year.
The Beatles were no exception. And, as music fans themselves, who had felt gypped whenever a single they already possessed was included on an album by one of their heroes, they liked it that way.
In hindsight, “Love Me Do,” released in October 1962, seems an inauspicious beginning.
But coupled with “P.S. I Love You,” it set The Beatles apart as not just stylistically different from just about anything else on the pop charts, but unique in that they were writing their own material.
It’s follow-up, “Please Please Me,” is another matter altogether.
The song that began life as a slow, Roy Orbison-style ballad, became a catchy pop tune, complete with a harmonica hook from John Lennon, under the guiding hand of producer George Martin. Coupled with “Ask Me Why,” it was already clear that The Beatles were playing for keeps. As legend has it, Martin declared at the end of the recording session that produced the single, “Boys, you’ve just cut your first Number One.” He was right.
“From Me To You” b/w “Thank You Girl” followed shortly thereafter. Stylistically similar to its predecessors, it was another hit, but barely hinted at what was to come.
Just as The Beatles were headed into the studio to record their next 45, “I’ll Get You,” John Lennon and Paul McCartney upped the ante.
The focus of the session became the pair’s new composition, “She Loves You.” With its “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah” refrain, tight, explosive instrumentation, and exuberant, tandem vocals from Lennon and McCartney, it broke the mold for pop records. It sold millions around the world and made The Beatles superstars.
Ninety-six days later The Beatles released “I Want To Hold Your Hand.”
Not only was the single a huge artistic and technological step forward (with the band utilizing 4-track recording for the first time), it proved to the world that they were no flash in the pan.
Backed with the equally magnificent “This Boy,” which features one of John Lennon’s best, most plaintive vocal tracks, “I Want To Hold Your Hand” soared to the top of the charts everywhere, including in the United States, where The Beatles were about to make their legendary rounds on The Ed Sullivan Show.
“It was handy to have a number one,” Ringo Starr told me with a laugh in 2014 of that first trip to the U.S.
But joking aside, The Beatles had, by early 1964, ushered in a new kind of pop star, a self-contained juggernaut of vocal, instrumental and compositional adeptness unheard of previously. It would oft be imitated, by the countless bands The Beatles inspired, but never topped.
While the band was cranking out No. 1 singles and albums, they also found time for the odd EP.
Extended Plays – 7-inch records with four songs – were still the rage up until about 1965. The Beatles released a string of EPs that included songs they mostly considered fillers, but of course they were songs that any other artist would have given a limb or two to have come up with.
“Long Tall Sally,” “Slow Down,” “Matchbox” and “Bad Boy” remain staples of bar bands around the world to this day, not because the Little Richard, Larry Williams or Carl Perkins originals are so compelling, but because The Beatles’ take on them was so lasting. Throw in the group’s own “I Call Your Name,” and between June 1964 and June 1965, The Beatles relegated five songs to EPs that remain classics to this day.
Another oddity in The Beatles catalogue is their two officially released singles in German. After being convinced The Beatles wouldn’t achieve significant success in Germany without singing their biggest hits in the local language, George Martin talked them into re-recording “I Want To Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You,” retitling them “Komm, gib mir deine Hand” and “Sie liebt dich.”
Meanwhile, the singles kept on coming.
The “Can’t Buy Me Love” and “A Hard Day’s Night” singles from the group’s film debut only solidified the band’s place as world-beaters. In fact, in the U.S. they even held the Top 5 slots in the Hit Parade in the spring of 1964. More chart-toppers would be released as The Beatles toured the world in 1964.
“I Feel Fine” introduced the world to “controlled feedback,” as John Lennon once called his proud creation that kicked off the song. Backed with another staple of The Beatles’ live set from 1964-1966, “She’s A Woman” is another Paul McCartney rocker that perhaps only Little Richard himself could have pulled off.
“Ticket To Ride” and “Help!” were released as singles from the album accompanying The Beatles’ second film in early 1965, followed by another huge step forward with the double A-Side, “Day Tripper” b/w “We Can Work It Out.”
Recorded at the time of the groundbreaking Rubber Soul LP, and released at the end of 1965, the single showed the way forward for The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and a host of other contemporary artists, including the recently “gone electric” Bob Dylan.
Then, along with the release of the pop masterpiece Revolver, the band unleashed the game-changing single “Paperback Writer” b/w “Rain.”
Riff heavy, with fluid bass and drumming unlike anything on a Beatles record to date, it was obvious to anyone with ears that The Beatles were hardly standing still. When McCartney presented “Paperback Writer” — written as a query from a struggling, desperate novelist to a faceless publisher — for development, Lennon told him to leave it as is. The result wasn’t one of the pairs’ greater collaborations, but the recording the group produced of it surely was.
With the early psychedelic classic “Rain” on its B-Side, it was a portent of things to come, not just with the soon to follow Revolver, but in “Strawberry Fields,” “Penny Lane” and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band less than a year later.
Those masterpieces followed, along with the singles – “All You Need is Love” b/w “Baby, You’re a Rich Man” and “Hello Goodbye” b/w “I Am The Walrus” – that appeared on the Magical Mystery Tour LP. Those songs, more than the millions of words written about the band in the mid-’60s, illustrated how The Beatles were moving forward at a relentless paces while still retaining their place at the top of pop’s pecking order.
In early 1968, while The Beatles were away at Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram in India, Parlophone Records released yet another step forward for the group.
With its driving McCartney piano line over a shuffle beat and a sax solo by Ronnie Scott, “Lady Madonna” was unlike any Beatles single that had come before it, but by then the public, and The Beatles’ competitors, had come to expect no less.
Tucked on its B-Side was another of George Harrison’s experimentations with Indian music. “The Inner Light” sets the Taoist Tao Te Ching to beautiful, languid tune recorded in India by Harrison during sessions for his Wonderwall Music soundtrack album (the first solo album by one of the Fab Four), and stands as yet another of the group’s B-Sides that has only continued to grow in stature in the intervening years.
But, once again, The Beatles weren’t satisfied to repeat the artistically and commercially successful formula of “Lady Madonna,” and during sessions for what became known as the White Album later that year, Lennon and McCartney delivered perhaps the most quintessential Beatles single of the band’s late-period.
“Hey Jude” began life as an ode to Lennon’s son Julian. McCartney came up with the tune and the first verse on one of his trips to Lennon’s Kenwood home to write songs.
Inspired by his songwriting partner’s divorce from his wife Cynthia, and the sullen Julian who often greeted him when he arrived, McCartney developed the idea into a 7-minute ballad unlike any that had come before.
When he presented it to Lennon, and stopped to interject that he intended to fix the “movement you need is on your shoulder” line because it “didn’t mean anything,” McCartney says Lennon looked over the top of his wire-rimmed granny glasses with a simple rebuff: “No you won’t. That’s the best line. I know what it means.”
For “Hey Jude’s” powerful B-Side — “Revolution” — Lennon fronted The Beatles with a power and fury unmatched since he stood shirtless, sucking throat lozenges in Abbey Road Studios to deliver “Twist and Shout” at the end of the Please Please Me sessions. Inspired by the political protests roiling the world in 1968, Lennon set himself at one with and apart from the movements via his scorching lyrics, but it was the sound of the record that caught people’s attention.
“Revolution” is a blistering record, with distorted guitars from Lennon and Harrison that teeter on the edge of feedback, a rhythm section of McCartney’s thumping, driving bass, Ringo Starr’s simple but precise drumming and session keyboardist extraordinaire Nicky Hopkins’ fluid runs and solos, that create a whole far greater than any of the individual parts.
As the first taste of what fans could expect from the then-forthcoming White Album, “Hey Jude” and “Revolution” all but ensured that The Beatles’ next LP would be yet another Number One.
By the spring of 1969, rumors that all was not well within The Beatles’ inner circle were beginning to creep out, but the release of the bluesy rockers “Get Back” and “Don’t Let Me Down,” from the sessions that would eventually make up Let It Be in 1970, surely put fans off the scent.
Followed just a month later by “The Ballad of John and Yoko” – recorded by Lennon and McCartney as a duo while Harrison and Starr were on holiday – backed with Harrison’s “Old Brown Shoe,” the signs seemed positive that whatever in-fighting had occurred during the previous winter was behind the foursome.
Just five months later, in the wake of the global smash Abbey Road’s release, The Beatles released “Something” b/w “Come Together.”
George Harrison’s first A-Side still stands as one of the best songs the band ever produced, and ranks as one of their greatest singles amongst some pretty tough company. Harrison had begun writing the song during the sessions for the White Album, but left it incomplete until inspiration struck him not long after that album was released.
Written for his then-wife Pattie Boyd, even Frank Sinatra referred to it as one of the great love songs of the 20th Century. In any other instance, Lennon’s swampy, spare “Come Together” would have been an A-Side. But even John couldn’t deny the indelible classic his partner had produced.
McCartney’s “Let It Be” followed; another timeless ballad, this time inspired when his mother, who had died when he was 14, came to him in a dream. But the universal, quasi-religious nature of the lyric, and it’s simple, elegant recording, meant that “Let It Be” was an instant classic, and would be one of The Beatles songs that nearly everyone on the planet knows from infancy.
Backed with the dancehall-esque “You Know My Name (Look Up The Number),” an experimental track primarily cooked up by Lennon and McCartney, “Let It Be” still stands as one of The Beatles’ finest moments, even though it was recorded amidst tremendous inner-tensions in the band.
Sadly, The Beatles were to end their singles output on a bit of a sour note.
“The Long and Winding Road” was cited in Paul McCartney’s court case against his former bandmates as proof that they were out to sabotage his creativity. Backed with Harrison’s bouncy “For You Blue,” from the Let It Be recording sessions, “The Long and Winding Road” was slathered with overcooked strings and choir by producer Phil Spector in an attempt to make a hit record out of what he, Lennon and Harrison felt was a half-finished recording.
It was the group’s 20th number one song, as well as its last. McCartney hated what Spector had done to his song, which he intended to be a simple recording, and never forgave the famed producer.
Still, from the tentative first steps of “Love Me Do” and “Please Please Me”, through the youthful exuberance of “She Loves You” and “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” and the artistically seeking nature of everything from “Day Tripper” to “Penny Lane” to “Revolution,” The Beatles’ singles and EPs are like nothing from any artist of theirs, or any other, time.
Constantly evolving, effortlessly harmonious, instantly memorable and relatable, they set the template for pop and rock artists to strive for, but scaled to heights so lofty no one has ever come close.
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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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