I realized a little too late, perhaps because I don’t celebrate Valentine’s Day, that this week would have been an optimal week to due a list of Top 5 Beatles Love Songs. D’oh! Oh well, another week. I don’t like to play by the rules, anyway!
John Lennon and Paul McCartney are indisputably one of the greatest songwriting teams of all time. I, and many others, would easily say the greatest.
Though simplifications of their overall styles and personalities, with Paul’s storytelling and John’s introspection, and John’s grit and Paul’s polish, the two were opposites who regularly complimented each other beautifully.
And yet, while the two were a team, most of us realize that beyond the earliest days of their career, John and Paul did not do a whole lot of sitting down and writing songs together. There are John songs, and there are Paul songs, and though they all bear the Lennon/McCartney credit, it’s because Lennon/McCartney is a trademark, in many ways, as much as anything. (And this is why, as a personal quirk of mine, I get really annoyed when I see something like “Eleanor Rigby, by John Lennon and Paul McCartney.” No, it was by Lennon/McCartney.)
But that does not mean the two were not collaborators in many other ways. Though they would not, as John described it, sit nose-to-nose as they did when they wrote She Loves You, they did indeed work together. And even if they did not actually write the songs together, they did act together as songwriters.
From Paul writing the amazing, driving bass line for Come Together, to John suggesting the I love you, I love you, I love you bit for Michelle, the contributions that they each made to each other’s work are endless. When one of them did not have the answer to the problem with a song, the other almost always did. It was the true beauty of their partnership, and what both of their music so often missed after the breakup of the band. In many ways, these contributions are so subtle that we cannot even know when and where they do exist. But in many, we can.
That is what this list is based off of. It is not a list of Please Please Me’s, or songs written together*, but of songs where a collaboration was formed by one making a significant contribution to the other’s song. It’s a list of songs written by either John or Paul alone, which were then saved, transformed and/or truly perfected by the other.
1. We Can Work It Out
Ah, this song. It’s easily one of my all-time favorite Beatles songs. I personally think that it’s easily among the best. And it’s also easily among Paul’s very best. The ultimate peak of his catchy and truly infectious potential.
And yet. That constant dilemma for Paul enters in: John Lennon. It’s hard to be incredibly awesome when you’ve got someone even more awesome always standing next to you. And it’s hard to hate on the other person’s awesomeness when they only serve to make you more awesome yourself.
Paul crafted an utterly amazing song here, but John fucking perfected it. And, in truly poetic form, it also reflects the two of them perfectly. As John himself once happily noted, you have Paul singing a story about a fight, but declaring how really, everything is going to be okay, all puppies and sunshine — and then John comes in and wants to talk about real life. Not to mention how we’re all going to die.
And that change in rhythm from 4/4 to 4/3! Dear lord. So far as I’ve read, that shit had rarely, if ever, been done before in popular music, and it was the start of one of Lennon’s signature songwriting moves. It works beautifully. And yes, that vocal of his, too. Paul turns in such a great performance, but again, John just knocks him out of the park.
And together, with Paul’s beautiful baby that John raised to be a fit young individual, they create pop perfection.
2. A Day In The Life
One day, John wrote a truly amazing song, haunting, mesmerizing and beautiful. But he didn’t have a middle. Three verses, yes, but the song needed something. For a song this good, it needed something big. But what?
Paul McCartney, apparently. While John was more likely to write full songs all at once, or mostly complete songs anyway, contrary to everything else that their respective characters say about them, Paul as just as likely to have snippets of unfinished musical ideas just sitting around, all dressed up with nowhere to go. He went through his notebooks, and he pulled one out. Woke up, fell out of bed . . . it was so strange, almost nonsensical at first, and yet so simultaneously perfect. What better for a song that already sounds on multiple levels like a dream?
And together, John and Paul created the “orchestral orgasm” directly preceding Paul’s bridge, and closing the song. Then and there, the great, great song was transformed into what I dub as the greatest song of all time.
I always have and always will think of this song as John’s song. But let’s face it: it wouldn’t be A Day In The Life without Paul.
3. Tomorrow Never Knows
Yet again, John wrote a song. This one was even complete! But still it needed something. So far, it was just a minute and a half of Indian-inspired, single chord drone with trance-like lyrics on top. How to draw it out? And though already hypnotic, how to draw listeners in and ensure they’d never forget?
If there is any credence at all to Paul’s insolent claim that no, he was the “experimental” Beatle, it is here. There are so many people influencing this song — from Ringo’s drumming, to Geoff Emerick’s decision to run John’s voice through a Leslie speaker, to Ken Townsend’s very fucking invention of automatic double-tracking (ADT) — but Paul’s influence cannot be denied. He brought in the tape loops.
Brought into the studio in a little plastic bag, an image I have always found rather amusing, Paul had been experimenting with tape loops at home by taking the erase head off of his tape recorder and continuously spooling the tape, saturating the sound. And in one of the best suggestions of all time, he suggested adding them to the song. To get the tape loops onto the track, the 1/4 inch wide pieces were individually spooled using pencils by engineers from all over Abbey Road studios, while mixed into the track in real-time. The result is bizarre, disquieting . . . and absolutely marvelous.
4. I’ve Got a Feeling
Paul wrote a good rock song. John had a great little unfinished song sitting around called “Everybody Had a Hard Year” that nevertheless could have never stood on its own. But combine them, and it apparently works perfectly. And ta-da, you’ve got yourself some classic Lennon/McCartney. It’s a rare, and perhaps entirely unique, instance in which Paul rocks out, and John mellows things out.
The fact that this is quite arguably the last true Lennon/McCartney collaboration ever, unless you want to cheat and count Free As a Bird, also makes for a very apt and very bittersweet pick.
5. Hello Goodbye
Yeah, I’m going to get called out on Paul-hate again, but I’m still going to say it. This song just isn’t very good. While certainly catchy, it’s lacking in both musical and lyrical quality. Its cuteness doesn’t make up for it’s blandness. There’s just nothing there. Paul can do so much better.
And then John comes in after the false ending. And yes, this is probably the one instance where he really did just save a song from the ranks of supreme mediocrity. Because you know what everyone I’ve ever talked to has said is their favorite part? The same part that’s my favorite. Hela, heba hello-a. It’s stupid and meaningless, but it’s fun as hell. You can’t get it out of your head. You’ll be humming it for hours. It makes you want to dance. And John created it while just fucking around on piano. You beat that.
Also, the video is just hilarious. And no, I’m not just talking about them dressed up in the Beatle suits or on the admittedly funny dancing at the end. I’m talking about George. Seriously, watch him closely. (Especially at :38.) He looks like he wants to kill Paul — painfully.
And the honorable mention goes to . . .
6. Hey Jude
This is probably a pretty quirky pick. After all, this is entirely, undeniably Paul’s songs. It’s one of his most well-known, and if I had to choose a song which most encapsulates Paul McCartney the songwriter, this would be it. As far as I know, John didn’t write a single note, or a single word.
But he did rescue the best line in the whole song.
The movement you need is on your shoulder. As Paul himself explains in the Beatles Anthology, as he played the song for John the first time, he mentioned mid-performance that he was going to “fix” the line. John stopped him in his tracks and said “you won’t!” When Paul said that it didn’t make any sense, and anyway he’d already used the word “shoulder,” John adamantly declared that it was the best line in the song. And he was right. So right, in fact, that Paul said he thinks of John and gets a little tear in his eye every time he sings the lyric.
For those who would ask me, as they have before, what it means, I offer my interpretation. I usually describe it as the ruby slipper phenomenon — the thing you needed was with you all along. The movement you need is on your shoulder means that you have the strength within you to make a change in your own life, to take a step forward and move on — you just have to choose to use it.
And what might your top five be, dear audience?
*This is, however, be a list I’d be interested in for a future date. Any suggestions on what to call it?