Saturday, 19 November 2016

Brian Epstein & The Beatles Top 100 Countdown

Since this week's entries are all somehow connected, you'd probably have guessed that Brian Epstein, manager of a certain group called the Beatles, would follow suit. Then came the serendipitous convergence of this blog's four wise men, AFHI, Recordman, Snicks and yours truly, who created a Beatles Top 100 at exactly the right time. So, instead of taking one day to tell the story of Epstein and present a few songs by the Beatles that may contain gay hints, we'll take 10 days, presenting 10 songs each day, as well as a part of the Epstein and Bealtes story every day. The only feature that will remain are the weekly statistics, albeit in a shortened form. The other three wise men will contribute to our understanding of these great songs in the comments, as will I, as can any one of you.

Brian Samuel Epstein was born to Harry and Malka Epstein on September 19, 1934 in a private nursing home in Liverpool. His brother Clive was born 22 months later. Next to the furniture store that the Epstein family owned was The North End Road Music Stores. James McCartney Sr.'s family was one of the local families that bought pianos there on extended-purchase plans. The Epsteins later expanded and took over NEMS.

Subjected to standard anti-Semitic teasing from his peers in the tough surrounds of industrial Liverpool, he also described in his 1964 autobiography A Cellarful of Noise that as the eldest son, he occupied “a hallowed position in a Jewish family – and much was to be expected of me”. His father ran a shop, which Brian was to take over and continue the Epstein brand. A letter he wrote to his father as a teenager indicating that he would like to become a dress designer was duly dismissed. In 1952 he was drafted as a clerk in the army and posted to the barracks in Regent’s Park, London. In a private memoir unearthed by the BBC in 1997 he had written, “I never went near the notorious bars and clubs of which I had been told. But I became aware of other homosexuals everywhere I went.” However, an incident in which he had worn a superior’s military uniform to a London gay club led to him being discharged on “medical grounds”; homosexuality was still considered a medical condition in Britain, and the military was even less forgiving.

Upon his return in 1954 he was put in charge of another branch of the family business, Clarendon Furnishing in Hoylake, and he was very successful, a born salesman. Yet his loneliness led to depression, and it was at this point in his life that the issue of his sexuality became a pressing one. His family sent him to see a psychiatrist, to whom Brian revealed his homosexuality and his desire to become an actor. Under the psychiatrist’s recommendations the Epsteins allowed his return to London where he gained a place to study at RADA.

Within a year he was arrested for ‘persistently importuning’ around public toilets in Swiss Cottage and he dropped out of his studies to return to the family home. In his private memoir he wrote, “I believed that my own will-power was the best thing with which to overcome my homosexuality… I was determined to go through the horror of this world. I feel deeply for I have always felt deeply for the persecuted, for the Jews, the coloured people, for the old and society’s misfits.”

Epstein's story will continue tomorrow. Now, let's start our favorite Top 100 song countdown - and the first one that's a collective effort: once again, many thanks and gratitude to AFHI, Recordman and Snicks.

Before we start, let me share this with you: it seems that our blog is becoming successful. For the first time since we've begun - four days ago, and every day since then, I've been receiving and duly removing spam comments from older posts. Although they hardly seem appropriate: they advertise an app that will show you hot girls stripping. Definitely not the demographic for that...

Now, pull the curtain up, strike up the band, and let the countdown begin.

At #100 is a song called She's a Woman. It is a song written mainly by Paul McCartney. John Lennon contributed to the lyrics and middle eight (the bridge). The song was finished in the studio the morning of the session. It was released as the B-side to I Feel Fine in 1964, their last single release that year. It reached #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 from frequent airplay.

At #99, we find I Want You (She's So Heavy). Written by John Lennon, the song closes side one on the Beatles' 1969 album Abbey Road. This song is an unusual Beatles composition for a variety of reasons, namely its length (nearly eight minutes), few lyrics (the title makes up most of the lyrics, aside from two more phrases; only 14 different words are sung), a three-minute descent through repeated guitar chords (a similar arpeggiated figure appears in another Lennon contribution to the album, Because), and abrupt ending. It was the first song recorded for the Abbey Road album but one of the last songs that the Beatles mixed as a group, on 20 August 1969.

"She's So Heavy was about Yoko," Lennon told Rolling Stone. "When you're drowning, you don't say, 'I would be incredibly pleased if someone would have the foresight to notice me drowning and come and help me.' You just scream." At the mixing session, Lennon told stunned engineer Geoff Emerick to abruptly cut the tape in the middle of a bar, creating the startling end to the first side of Abbey Road.

Josh Hart and Damien Fanelli, writing for Guitar World, placed the song 34th in their list of the 50 Heaviest Songs Before Black Sabbath, and said the song "might have inadvertently started Doom Metal." Similarly, Classic Rock magazine commented that the song pre-dated "Black Sabbath's creation of Doom Rock by several months."

At #98 is one of their early songs, Any Time At All. It first appeared on the Beatles' A Hard Day's Night album in 1964. It was mainly composed by John Lennon, with an instrumental middle eight by Paul McCartney.

Any Time at All shows how much the Beatles learned from their hero Buddy Holly. The song has all the Holly trademarks — the jangling guitars, the openhearted generosity of the lyric, the urgent emotion in the voices. It's a pledge of 24-hour devotion to a girl, with Lennon speaking his mind in a brash way ("Call me tonight, and I'll come to you") that would have made Holly proud — even though Lennon himself wasn't thrilled with the results. (He dismissed the song as my "effort at [re]writing It Won't Be Long.')

I'm afraid that the only version that I could find was on Spotify:

At #97, here's one of the few songs in this countdown that wasn't composed by the Beatles themselves. Matchbox is a Rockabilly song recorded by Carl Perkins in December 1956. It shares some lyrics with 1920s blues songs by Ma Rainey and Blind Lemon Jefferson.

The Beatles were fans of Perkins and began performing the song circa 1961. Ringo Starr sang lead vocals when it was recorded in 1964. There are suggestions that Perkins may have been present in the studio at that time. As was usually the case, all instruments on the song are played by the Beatles themselves, with the exception of the piano, which was played by producer George Martin. Matchbox appeared on the Long Tall Sally EP in the UK. In the US, it appeared on the Something New album, and was released as a single on August 24, 1964, which reached #17 on the Billboard Hot 100.

At #96, we meet the first George Harrison song in our countdown, which appeared in the Beatles' last released album, Let It Be (1970). I Me Mine was the last new track recorded by the band before their split in April 1970. Its lyrics serve as a comment from Harrison on the fractious situation within the group at that time. The song's musical mood alternates between Waltz-time verses, during which Harrison laments the ego problems afflicting the Beatles, and choruses played in the Hard Rock style.

This is the best that I could find on YouTube:

If you're registered at Spotify, this is much better:

At #95, here's our first song from the album without a name: it is usually referred to as The Beatles, otherwise known as The White Album (1968). Lennon wrote I'm So Tired during the Beatles' stay with the Maharishi. With no booze, drugs or tobacco allowed at the ashram, Lennon was meditating all day and tormented by insomnia at night, obsessing over Yoko Ono, whom he had wanted to invite along despite the presence of his wife, Cynthia. One of dozens of songs the Beatles wrote in India, I'm So Tired detailed Lennon's fragile state of mind. It was also an open letter to Ono, whose postcards to Lennon in India were a lifeline. "I got so excited about her letters," he said. "I started thinking of her as a woman, and not just an intellectual woman."

Lennon called the White Album track one of his favorite Beatles recordings. McCartney liked it too — at one of the Let It Be sessions in 1969, the Beatles recorded an informal, jokey version with McCartney singing lead. "So Tired is very much John's comment to the world," McCartney later said. "'And curse Sir Walter Raleigh, he was such a stupid get.' That's a classic line, and it's so John that there's no doubt that he wrote it."

Here it is:

This is an alternate version:

At #94, a song from the Yellow Submarine album (1969). Hey Bulldog is a Lennon song and is generally considered the album's highlight song.

For all its playfulness, Hey Bulldog was a biting, aggressive piece of music: Harrison ran his guitar through a fuzz box and then turned up his amp extra loud, resulting in a particularly ferocious solo. "I helped [Lennon] finish it off in the studio," McCartney said of the song, "but it's mainly his vibe." Lennon himself called it "a good-sounding record that means nothing."

At #93, here's another song from the 1969 album Abbey Road. Oh! Darling was a McCartney song. Harrison described this doo-wop-style rocker to Rolling Stone as "a typical 1955 song... We do a few ooh-oohs in the background, very quietly, but mainly it's Paul shouting." That belting, which took McCartney back to the Little Richard throat-shredding of his early days, did not come easily. "I ended up trying each morning as I came into the recording session," he said. "I tried it with a hand mic, and I tried it with a standing mic, I tried it every which way and finally got the vocal I was reasonably happy with. If it comes off a little bit lukewarm then you've missed the whole point." Engineer Geoff Emerick recalled that McCartney sang while the backing track played over speakers, instead of headphones, because he wanted to feel as though he were singing to a live audience.

Lennon liked the song but thought that he was better suited to take the lead. "It was more my style than his," Lennon argued. "If he'd had any sense, he would have let me sing it."

At #92 is the song Yellow Submarine, written by Paul and sang by Ringo. The song first appeared on the album Revolver (1966), and it was a #1 single all over the world (#2 US, #3 Italy, #5 Finland). It also appeared on the film soundtrack of the same name, released in 1969.

As McCartney explained, "I thought, with Ringo being so good with children — a knockabout-uncle type — it might not be a bad idea for him to have a children's song." Years later, Yellow Submarine remains the gateway drug that turns little children into Beatles' fans, with that cheery singalong chorus. It inspired the Beatles' 1968 animated film, as well as Starr's unofficial sequel on Abbey Road, Octopus' Garden.

George Martin drew on his experience as a producer of comedy records for Beyond the Fringe and The Goon Show, providing an array of zany sound effects to create the nautical atmosphere. Lennon blew bubbles, while he and McCartney shouted out orders to the faux submarine crew ("Full speed ahead!") through a filter. A few friends even came by the studio to help out with sound effects, including Marianne Faithfull and the Rolling Stones' Brian Jones.

Finally for today, at #91, The Night Before, a track written by McCartney for the Help! soundtrack (1965).

For any other band, a Pop gem as magnificent as The Night Before would have turned into a career-making hit single, if not the foundation of a legend. But for the Beatles, it was just another great album track, slipping through the cracks as they sped from A Hard Day's Night through Help! on their way to Rubber Soul. The band was writing and cutting masterpieces faster than fans could even absorb them.

The band's love of Motown was never more apparent, resulting in a hard-driving twist number that could have passed for prime Marvin Gaye at his most uptempo. In his double-tracked lead vocal, McCartney yowls about a lover's betrayal, while Lennon plays a rollicking electric-piano riff. "That sound was one of the best [we] had got on record," said McCartney.

In the movie Help!, the Beatles perform the song on England's Salisbury Plain, in the shadow of Stonehenge. Harrison mimes the terse, stabbing guitar solo — but it was McCartney who played it on the record.


  1. Sorry everybody that I couldn't embed the original album version for every song. The YouTube problem that I've been having with Dylan: it's twice as much with the Beatles. When will these silly people realize that it's not to their best interest to feed the people with third-rate live versions or outtakes, let alone the dozens of fake cover versions trying to pass as real? If the young ones can't listen to the Beatles at their majestic best, how the f*ck are they going to become fans? Shortsightedness...

  2. These are the songs at the bottom ten, which means we all gave mostly minimum points. In 5/10 we mostly agreed give or take a point, but in the other five, the 3 of us gave low marks and one gave a relatively high one. These songs are: for Snicks it's Yellow Submarine and Matchbox, for Recordman it's Oh! Darling, for AFHI it's Hey Bulldog and for me it's I Me Mine. I ask my fellow voting members to comment, if they feel like it, on the songs that stood out for them and not the others.

    I will begin with I Me Mine: the Beatles biggest strength is that their lyrics are a long confessional thread that by following it you get to follow their incredible story. From their childhood memories in Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields Forever, to the adventures of John and Yoko in the ballad of the same name. There's a void, however. John and Paul avoided writing about the tension and bitterness that preceded the breakup. I Me Mine is possibly the only Beatle song chronicling those special times. That's the main reason that I like it. The melody, an unlikely combination of Waltz and Hard Rock that actually works, is an added bonus.

    PS: John and Paul aired their dirty laundry post breakup, with songs like How Do You Sleep?, Too Many People, and Back Seat Of My Car.

  3. I just did a spot on "Hey Bulldog" on my Facebook page that commented on the fact that the song disappeared from early showings of "Yellow Submarine" (1968) only to reappear for the 1999 re-release. It's my favorite of the original numbers written for the film, and the cartoon footage accompanying it is a delight. In fact, I toyed with the idea of using Paul's bass line as a ring tone until it dawned on me that I never get any phone calls anyway and wouldn't be able to enjoy it. The punning lyric is of a type with the playfulness John exhibited in his two books, "In His Own Write" and "A Spaniard in the Works: "Some kind of innocence is measured out in years / You don't know what it's like to listen to your fears." Perfection.

  4. I think it goes without saying that though these tunes are at the bottom of the ranking, they are still, for the most part, great songs that any act would be proud of. There are some here that I don't care all that much for but more in the sense that I wouldn't purposefully play them but if they were on, I wouldn't lunge for the dial or wince and cover my ears. 2 of my choices are here so I'll address them. Oh! Darling has always been a favorite from Abbey Road. I simply love Paul's vocal and though I would love to hear John's take on the song, I'm satisfied with Paul's effort. I also liked Robin Gibb's version a decade later. I'm So Tired just screams the White album both in production style and lyrics. Leave it to John to write a song about exhaustion that sounds so full of power! God I love these guys.
    Addressing Mr. Epstein, is there a connection between the title of his book A Cellar Full Of Noise and the self-same line in Pet Clark's I Know A Place or was that simply a coincidence?

    1. Thanks to both of you, AFHI & RM, for your insightful comments. I love both Oh! Darling and Hey Bulldog. As RM has said, being in the lower end of the Top 100 doesn't mean that these aren't good songs - in fact every other group would give an arm and a leg to have such songs in their arsenal. It's just that there are 90 Beatles' songs that are even more amazing than these. Even songs that we have left out of the 100, off the top of my head, From Me To You, I'm Down, It Won't Be Long, Yer Blues, Mother Nature's Son, Sexy Sadie, Two Of Us, No Reply, I've Just Seen a Face, and many others could easily fit in any great songs' list.

      By the way, I've already regretted choosing I Should’ve Known Better as my song to leave out of the 100. If I would do it again, I would probably have chosen Any Time At All. But, it's all good.

      A fun fact about Oh! Darling. If you listen to 10CC's Donna, you'll realize how influenced it was from the Beatles' song. Also, Power Pop was practically invented by McCartney.

      As for your question, RM, concerning A Cellar Full Of Noise, it's a very interesting one. Which means: I have no idea. If anybody else knows if there is a connection, please inform the rest of us.

  5. How could Epstein not have been aware of the connection? Of course the most immediate reference is surely to the Cavern. But I don't know, "having (not) read the book"! Thanks for bringing it to my attention, recordman!

    1. I think you're right, AFHI. How could I not make the connection? I should've known better... :)

  6. It's just that the line is not a common one and sounds poetic.
    Ah, Wikipedia says the line was a deliberate reference to Epstein's bio. It was recorded in '65 so it's conceivable since the book came out in '64.

    The More You Know...whoosh!

    1. It's got a back beat, you can't lose it!