With the Beatles
IN THIS PHOTO: The Beatles in 1967/PHOTO CREDIT: David Magnus
Putting the Fab Four’s Albums in Their Place
THE reason I am bringing up The Beatles…
IN THIS PHOTO: The Beatles in 1963/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images/Press
is the fact their eponymous album – or ‘The White Album’ – turns fifty on 22nd November and I am building up to a big anniversary. We got excited last year when Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band hit fifty and many were talking about its iconic stature and how influential it remains. I feel the boys’ eponymous record is even more important and long-lasting because it is amazing the thing got made at all. It is a rare double-album from The Beatles and is stuffed with gems and songs that reveal their true meanings this long down the line. Four songwriters on different pages – as the band was on the point of self-destruction-; it is a wonderful achievement and, although scattershot and with a few weak moments, remains one of their very best works.
IN THIS PHOTO: The Beatles in 1966/PHOTO CREDIT: Robert Whitaker
I will mark the album closer the time but was thinking, when investigating The Beatles’ back catalogue, just how much they put out in a few years! Their albums are not those you idly put into a top-five/ten and leave it at that. There are the lesser-celebrated works and those that get all the girls; the underdogs and the masterpieces (that rank in different orders depending on which fan you ask). I have been looking at a few select Beatles records and putting them into categories. I have been thinking about importance and impact; the record that we need to appreciate more and the one, to me, that marks their true peak. As we loom towards another fiftieth anniversary of a Beatles masterpiece; here are a selection of their albums that, I feel, fit into…
IN THIS PHOTO: The Beatles in 1970/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images/Press
THEIR own categories!
ALL ALBUM COVERS: Getty Images
The Influencer: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
Background: By August of 1966, the band retired from touring and began a three-month holiday. Once they retuned – on a flight back to London – Paul McCartney had an idea of a song involving an Edwardian military band that formed the core of the Sgt. Pepper concept. Starting studio sessions with two youth-inspired records, Strawberry Fields Forever (John Lennon) and Penny Lane (Paul McCartney) – they were not on the album but released as a double A-side – and the band set to work on their most-celebrated and scrutinised work. The title cut was recorded in February 1967 and, after that, McCartney suggested recording an entire album built around this fictional band – giving the band freedom to run riot creatively…
Date of Release: 26th May, 1967
Previous Album: A Collection of Beatles Oldies (Compilation - 1966)
Next Album: The Beatles (1968)
Its Influence and Explosion: It is an album that saw the world’s most-famous band retreat from touring – because they couldn’t hear themselves sing and perform - and attack the studio like never before! Pushing machinery and conventions to the limits; they set about creating this multi-coloured, multi-genre masterpiece built around Sgt. Pepper and his ringleader, Billy Shears. It does not contain Penny Lane or Strawberry Fields but there are incredible tracks like She’s Leaving Home and the biblical finale, A Day in the Life. Arriving at a time when the Summer of Love wanted us all to get high and together; it is a record that seems to define the times but has an ageless quality – a band taking a risk and abandoning the stage to create what is seen as one of the best albums ever. It is seen as influencing the ‘Album Era’ – artists more interested in longer forms and taking more risks with their music. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band heralded the legitimisation of the album as a creative format/expression and influenced the development of the counterculture of the 1960s. Alter ego personas, were becoming more common during the 1970s with Glam Rock artists especially inspired.
Choice Cut: She’s Leaving Home
The Underdog: Help!
Background: The fifth studio album from The Beatles; Help! was the soundtrack to the film of the same name. Of the fourteen songs on the album, seven of them appear in the film (including the title number and Ticket to Ride). Follow the success of their previous album, Beatles for Sale; the band was in-demand and becoming ever-more-popular with critics. The boys were not new to film and soundtracks! They had already filmed and released A Hard Day’s Night the year before and there was a definite hunger for Beatles-related flicks. Although Help! is not as lauded as much as A Hard Day’s Night; it is seen as an interesting film that showed the band in a new light.
Date of Release: 6th August, 1965
Previous Album: Beatles for Sale (1964)
Next Album: Rubber Soul (1965)
No Cry for Help, Man: Aside from a couple of cover versions, the band were becoming more confident as songwriters and that was to crystallise on Rubber Soul (1965). Rather than relying on covers and reinterpreting them; John Lennon and Paul McCartney were growing as songwriters. Help! does not get the same fuss and exposure as, say, Revolver, but you can hear two geniuses growing and starting to spread their wings. The much-covered Yesterday is a simple beauty and one of the most instant, memorable songs in their cannon. The title-track is an urgent plea from Lennon and one of the most arresting, revealing songs from the band; Another Girl and It’s Only Love underrated and endlessly pleasurable; I Need You sees George Harrison bring a song to the party and, whilst not the best on the album, shows he was becoming more involved in that aspect.
Choice Cut: Yesterday
The Scattershot Masterpiece: The Beatles
Background: By 1968, the band had achieved commercial and critical success. They had reached a natural peak and they did not need to prove anything to the world. Given the success of their 1967 output; there was that expectation and wonder how they would follow things. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band received enormous kudos and was seen, even at the time, as a cultural touchstone. Rather than sweat blood in the studio and repeat what they already put out, the band wrote most of the songs for The Beatles during a Transcendental Meditation course with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Rishikesh, India between February and April 1968. The Beatles needed to get away from everything and the retreat provided new inspiration and meditation. Leaders Lennon and McCartney were re-energised and they would meet in each other’s rooms to review their new work and exchange ideas.
Date of Release: 22nd November, 1968
Previous Album: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
Next Album: Yellow Submarine (1969)
A Messy Delight: Many feel the double-album format is a bit ill-advised and can lead to egotism and wasted songs. Although The Beatles has a few stinkers – Piggies and The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill – there is so much variation and brilliance throughout. Tensions ran high in the studio and, whether caused by the persistent presence of Yoko Ono; it meant the band was recording songs separately and there was a lot of unhappiness (the material does not suffer). You hear the thirty songs and cannot compare two of them – everything has its own skin and, often, the band skip through genres and worlds without taking a breath! From Paul McCartney’s Blackbird and Helter Skelter to John Lennon’s Glass Onion and Happiness Is a Warm Gun – not forgetting George Harrison’s While My Guitar Gently Weeps –; it is a masterful exploration of the band’s minds and creative brilliance!
Choice Cut: Blackbird
My Personal Favourite: Rubber Soul
Background: The majority of the songs for Rubber Soul were composed after The Beatles returned to London after their 1965 U.S. tour. The record, as such, reflects the impact of that month-long tour and new sounds they were picking up. Among the adventures the band had was meeting Bob Dylan and getting to visit Elvis Presley’s home. The popularity was growing, for sure, and the band were becoming more distinct as writers – this was an album with no cover versions and the band, as such, were putting more of themselves onto the page. A lot of African-American sounds made their way into Rubber Soul and, again, America was making more of an impact on their mindset. Harmonies inspired by The Byrds and Stax-tinted songs moved away from the sort of sensation we were hearing on Beatles records.
Date of Release: 3rd December, 1965
Previous Album: Help! (1965)
Next Album: Revolver (1966)
An Awakening and Sonic Shift: I love the album because it is underrated and does not get the credit it warrants. Rubber Soul helped transform music in the 1960s and bring Pop to new realms. The Beatles, in a way, signalled a revolution where albums were bolder and contained no filler tracks – a complete and immersive experience that was not about hit singles and what the radio stations were playing. The popularity and response to Rubber Soul led other artists to do the same and create their own version. Famously, The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson dubbed Rubber Soul as one of his favourite and, in a way, it helped aid and enhance his songwriting. The Beatles were exploring new, less commercial themes in their music and were balancing audience-pleasing songs and revelations learned through literature, art and hallucinogenic drugs.
Choice Cut: The Word
The Most Important: Please Please Me
Background: Following the success of singles like Love Me Do and Please Please Me; there was nationwide interest and people wanted a debut Beatles L.P. Parlophone Records urged The Beatles to get into the studio and capitalise on the success of their singles. The two singles and their B-sides – P.S. I Love You (Love Me Do) and Ask Me Why (Please Please Me) – were included by producer Gorge Martin needed ten more songs. The label wondered what the band could record quickly and Martin knew their stage act was the answer. As such – after establishing the Cavern Club was not a suitable space to record – the boys collated a selection of the songs they were playing live and recorded them in a single day of recording! The original plan was to record a morning and afternoon session but an evening session was added. Song by song, and with varying takes, The Beatles worked their way through and it all ended with the throat-shredding Twist and Shout – left until the end because John Lennon, suffering a heavy cold, was trying to keep his voice intact and could, literally, do nothing more after recording the song.
Date of Release: 22nd March, 1963
Previous Album: N/A
Next Album: With the Beatles (1963)
Where It All Began: Many assume Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is the most important work from the band but I feel the debut record is! This is where everything began an a seismic explosion that took the world by storm. Nobody had heard anything as explosive, instant and wonderful as Please Please Me and it announced the arrival of a band that would soon rise to the worldwide stage. Its simplicity and uncomplicated sound would evolve soon enough but listening to it in 2018 and it still sounds immense and otherworldly. Hearing The Beatles capture these songs without too much glitter and technology makes every song seem like you are watching it in the flesh. It is a stunning and crucially important album that started a huge and unstoppable ball rolling!
Choice Cut: Twist and Shout
A Promising-If-Flawed Gem: Magical Mystery Tour
Background: The Beatles completed Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in April 1967 and Paul McCartney, in conceptual mode again, was eager to create a film that captured a psychedelic theme similar to that represented by LSD proponent Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters on the U.S. West Coast. The film itself was intended to be an unscripted adventure where so-called ‘ordinary’ people would travel on a coach and experience ‘magical’ adventures. The boys recorded the song Magical Mystery Tour but the film lay dormant as the band continued to record songs for the animated film, Yellow Submarine.
Date of Release: 27th November, 1967 (U.S. L.P.)/8th December, 1967 (U.K. E.P.)
Previous Album: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
Next Album: The Beatles (1968)
Any Album with Penny Lane DESERVES Big Acclaim: Although the film is seen as a disaster and huge mess; the album is a more successful and cohesive thing. The two masterpieces excluded from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields Forever, are there as is the majestic George Harrison offering, Blue Jay Way. I Am the Walrus is John Lennon embracing the LSD theme and creating something trippy, alien and utterly compelling. Hello Goodbye is a classic Beatles number-one and the closer, All You Need Is Love is seen as a signature Beatles staple. Among the finery and epic songs are a few dogged and less-memorable songs. McCartney’s The Fool on the Hill and Your Mother Should Know are not seen as his best whilst many ignore Flying (the instrumental composed by the whole band). Baby, You’re a Rich Man (Lennon) is okay but not really among the best on there. With a few duffers and plenty of gold, Magical Mystery Tour is a Beatles album that deserves a hell of a lot more praise and investigation.
Choice Cut: Penny Lane
Their Finest Hour: Revolver
Background: In December 1965, Rubber Soul was released to huge acclaim. The Beatles had raised music and challenged artists to up their game. Because of that, the band themselves needed to evolve and show a natural step from Rubber Soul. The band was moving from singles to creating albums of immense quality and completion. The group’s manager, Brian Epstein, pitched the band making a promotional film and accompanying album (as they did with A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965) but the boys vetoed this. It meant the band had a three-month period free – the longest they had experienced since 1962 – and had time to set to work on Revolver. Having to follow the incredible Rubber Soul; it is the first album where The Beatles properly experimented and spending more time in the studio (as opposed touring and filming).
Date of Release: 5th August, 1966
Previous Album: Yesterday and Today (1966 – North American Release)
Next Album: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
The ‘Fan Favourite’: U.S. critics were muted when it came to Revolver – due, in no small part, down to controversies that occurred when the band were touring. It gained a hell of a lot of retrospective acclaim there but here, in the U.K., journalists went wild, declaring it inventive, controversial and hugely impressive. Although Lennon was comparing The Beatles to God around that time; perhaps he was not far off of the mark. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is seen as the most important and influential album of The Beatles career but Revolver has overtaken that record in terms of quality perception. Revolver has fewer filler tracks and does not rely on a concept. Most fans consider it the best thing the band ever did and the invention on the record – that mixed Western sounds with the East – was a huge breakthrough in 1966. Maybe Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band got to the top spot in most lists prior to 2000; after that, consciousness shifted to Revolver and, to me, they are all right – it is the finest Beatles record.
Choice Cut: Tomorrow Never Knows
The Heartbreaking Reminder: Abbey Road
Background: After the unpleasant recording sessions for the proposed Get Back album (it would become Let It Be); Paul McCartney suggested the band get together, with George Martin, and produce an album like they used to. He wanted none of the conflict of 1968’s The Beatles and there should be no concepts. Martin wanted the band to let him produce the album like he used to and without argument/interference. Only three weeks after the Get Back sessions ended; the recording for Abbey Road started (beginning 22nd February, 1969). The band, in hindsight, agreed it was them returning to a unit and performing like a real band – the first time they had experienced that since Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Date of Release: 26th September, 1969
Previous Album: Yellow Submarine (1969)
Next Album: Let It Be (1970)
“And, in the end…”: Compare Abbey Road to the chaos, unhappiness and poor results of Let It Be – the album was recorded before Abbey Road but released after – and it is like two different bands. Abbey Road has that iconic cover – better, to me, than the epic cover for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – and boasts that second-side suite of songs. Mainly led by McCartney; a series of short numbers concluded in the brilliant The End (unless you include thehidden track, Her Majesty). It is a contrast to the more conventional first-half and shows The Beatles were in ambitious, playful and brilliant mood! Aside from a couple of indulgent tracks (the maligned McCartney number, Maxwell’s Silver Hammer (with its endless takes and hours spent perfecting it) and the throwaway Octopus’s Garden) it is a phenomenal album that has Come Together, I Want You (She’s So Heavy) and the George Harrison masterpiece, Something. Alongside the brilliant 1-2 opening on the second-half, Here Comes the Sun (Harrison) and Because; you get the sense The Beatles were throwing it all into the pot – knowing this was the end of the band and they might as well go for broke. It is sad to think what could have happened were it not for the tensions in 1968 and the disaster of Let It Be. Abbey Road is a heartbreaking vision of a band that created a masterful and brilliant farewell – an album that reminds one of their early works; when they were spirited, together and happy to be in the same studio!
Choice Cut: Come Together
The Letdown: Let It Be
Background: By late-1968 – two years after The Beatles gave up touring – McCartney was keen of the group to return to the stage. Given the stress and fall-outs during The Beatles; the band was more divided than ever and that prospect seemed moot. He pitched the band go rehearse and create an album with no studio artifice and return to their roots – recording some of the album during a one-off live concert. The rest of the band was sceptical and, after completing five months’ work on the previous albums; they were not so keen. They disliked the gruelling media circus and the effort of going on tour. Lennon was keener on a back-to-basics studio approach given his dissatisfaction with the excess and experimentation of Revolver. The greater role Yoko Ono was playing in the band – frequently making suggestions and present at recording sessions – coupled with the infamous Twickenham rehearsals made Let It Be a fiasco. Those rehearsals, filmed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg and his crew, saw the band rehearse and, soon, things descended into hostility and icy tension.
Date of Release: 8th May, 1970
Previous Album: Abbey Road (1969)
Next Album: From Then to You (U.K.)/The Beatles Christmas Album (U.S.)
No Beatles Album Can Ever Truly Be Classed ‘Bad’: Let It Be topped the charts in the U.S. and U.K. and Let It Be and The Long and Winding Road were number-one hits. Even though there was a lot of tension in the camp; songs like Let It Be, Get Back and The Long and Winding Road showed the band could still produce magic when called for. The usual levels of brilliance that we expect of such a legendary group were lacking during Let It Be. The songs I have named are, to be fair, the ones we remember. I Me Mine is a wandering and forgettable George Harrison contribution; Two of Us sees Lennon and McCartney duetting but is a throwaway – Dig a Pony and Dig It songs we rarely remember and stand out. One After 909 is another minor track whilst For You Blue (another Harrison cut) proved he was yet to hit the peak we would see on Abbey Road. Critics were not sympathetic and warm when the album arrived. Many felt, if this was their last album, it was a cheap and insignificant record. Many felt the inclusion of Phil Spector as producer – a move that was unwise and they would rue – was a mistake and The Beatles had sold out. McCartney was assuming the role of leader whilst Lennon was more interested being with Yoko Ono. You can detect that lack of focus from Lennon – his songs are weaker than McCartney’s by a long way – and the band, like they were in 1968, were four individuals rather than a tight unit. Many felt the documentary/film and album was the band breaking up and that was the end of things. Let It Be was re-released by McCartney in 2003 as Let It Be… Naked and it gave him the chance to remix the tracks and remove the orchestral overdubs Spector added for Across the Universe and The Long and Winding Road.
Choice Cut: Let It Be