Friday, August 28, 2009

The Beatles Playlist

this is a fantastic feature. Go to and read the whole thing. Go.

"I Saw Her Standing There" from Please Please Me (1963)

In retrospect, it would be difficult to find a more appropriate opening song for the Beatles' debut album. Beginning with a boisterous count-in from McCartney, "I Saw Her Standing There" in many ways established the musical and thematic template that the Beatles would repeat throughout their first several records. Unapologetically upbeat and youthful, it's a short burst of 1960s pop perfection, just catchy enough to work and exuberantly naïve enough without being laughable.

Its musical blueprint has since become the stuff of Beatles legend: McCartney's energetic, urgent, gotta-have-her-now singing; Lennon's backing vocals and steady rhythm guitar; Harrison's confident lead guitar. Callous Beatles fans can even cut Ringo a break: regardless of his shortcomings as a drummer, the song wouldn't have been complete with anyone else manning the skins. Handclaps added an element of fun to the mix, and still today the song is infectiously punchy and sounds like four young dudes having a blast in a recording studio. In many ways the song defined the band's early style ; though there would of course be variations along the way, in retrospect it contains all the key aspects of what makes the band's "pop" period still sound fresh and relevant today.

The song's characters - the unabashedly romantic male and the flawless object of his affection -- would likewise be oft-repeated throughout the Beatles' early catalog. The narrator is indeed hopelessly smitten: in classic true love fashion, the attraction here is physical, as he doesn't know a single thing about the girl other than "the way she looked was way beyond compare" and that "before too long I fell in love with her." Allegedly written when Lennon and McCartney were still in high school, it's hard not to attribute this open-wondered naïveté to the two musicians' young age.

Lennon reportedly scoffed at some of McCartney's early lyrics - perhaps an early sign of tensions that would later contribute to the band's undoing - but the result was nevertheless a rousing and appropriate introduction to the Beatles and the studio sound they'd perfect throughout the early 1960s. As music fans we tend to mythologize a band's "firsts," and while this is sometimes problematic - if the Beatles had crapped out early as just another also-ran beat band, the song probably wouldn't have the standing it does now - one would be hard-pressed to find a better opening studio statement for the band. Though "I Saw Her Standing There" was relegated as the b-side to "I Want to Hold Your Hand," it's about as perfect an opening track as you'll find, and one that perfectly encapsulates the Beatles' early style.

"Eleanor Rigby" from Revolver (1966)
One of the Beatles' best songs is one on which none of the members played any instruments. "Eleanor Rigby" featured a double string quartet, with McCartney singing lead, Lennon and Harrison providing harmony vocals and Ringo doing Christ knows what (to be fair, the drummer is credited with coming up with at least one key lyric for the song). By now all the clichés about the song's place in the Beatles' legacy have been repeated enough and only need quick mention here: the song continued the band's transition from straightforward pop songs to a more experimental style that began with Rubber Soul and explored themes that were absent from their previous records. It's also notable for being one of the songs whose authorship is in dispute: Lennon claimed that he wrote most of the lyrics, while McCartney and friend Pete Shotton (who is said to be present when the song was written) were willing to credit Lennon with little more than half a line or so.

Those are the types of dry details that have become part of the Beatles' story with the benefit of hindsight; still, they don't do much for conveying how affecting and bleak the song remains. An unflinching tale about the parallels between a lonely church worker whose death goes unnoticed and the priest who conducts her funeral and writes "words of a sermon that no one will hear," the song sounds both as relevant and as out of step with today's mainstream music as it did when it was originally released. Certainly part of the song's emotional impact is due to its mournful string arrangement - unlike anything the band had recorded up to this point, it can still tug at the emotions of even the most callous cynic. While McCartney's vocals drip with a sense of resignation and defeat, what's most stirring is the song's universal sentiments: we can all relate to the isolation that defines these characters' lives and the battles against futility they wage. While most of the Beatles' pre-Rubber Soul songs have aged well and are still enjoyable today, for many fans it's the band's evolution into more complex songs like "Eleanor Rigby" that better defines the Beatles' impact and legacy, even if it did contribute to the group being labeled a "studio band."

Though "Eleanor Rigby" wasn't the first "serious" Beatles song, it was the most explicitly nihilistic. The romantic optimism that defined some of the band's previous songs is a world away here: Eleanor is buried "along with her name," while Father McKenzie does little more than wipe the dirt off his hands as he leaves the woman's funeral. It's a telling gesture in a song that offers no easy answers or even the faintest hints of consolation.

No comments: