Sunday, 20 November 2016

Brian Epstein & The Beatles Top 100 Countdown

Yesterday, we left Brian Epstein in a rather sorry mood: he had been caught cruising in a public restroom and as a consequence he dropped out of his studies at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art to return to the family home.

Back in Liverpool once again, his father put him in charge of the music department of NEMS – a new branch of the family’s store. Geoffrey Ellis, who was CEO of NEMS, spoke about Brian for the biography The Brian Epstein Story, commenting that when he met Brian at this time, “You couldn’t help knowing he was homosexual, partly from the choice of some of his friends and associates, partly because in his private life he made no secret of it at all.” He also noted that Brian’s attempt to portray himself as otherwise to his family had “a very profound effect on him.” It was in his job at NEMS that he first came across an early recording by The Beatles and went along to see them play live at The Cavern.

Alistair Taylor, long-time assistant to Brian Epstein, tells us of that fateful first meeting:

"We found this record in Germany by a guy called Tony Sheridan and the Beat Brothers, the boys were just a backing group, and one day Brian came into the shop and he said, 'By the way, do you remember that record that we sold so many of, that band the Beatles?' So I said, yeah. So he said, 'Well, they're playing at the Cavern. Let's go down and see them, and we'll see what they're like.'

"And it was jammed solid, and we just sat at the back feeling rather embarressed, and I suddenly realised my foot was tapping, and I hated Pop music, and Brian hated it even more than me, and I looked 'round and so was his."

"And after a while Brian started talking about it, and he said, 'What did you think?' And I said I thought they were awful, quite honestly, but absolutely incredible. So he said, 'that's exactly my feelings. Do you think I should manage them?' And I said, yeah."

Brian Epstein recalled meeting the Beatles that day:

"I hadn't had anything to do with management of Pop artists before that day that I went down to the Cavern Club and heard the Beatles playing, and this was quite a new world, really, for me."

"I was immediately struck by their music, their beat, and their sense of humour on stage. And even afterwards when I met them I was struck again by their personal charm. And it was there that really it all started..."

Queenie Epstein, Brian's mother, remembers Brian talking to his parents after he met the Beatles:

"He asked his father and myself to listen to a record. He said, 'Forget about the singer, just listen to the backing group.' Actually, we were always fairly interested in all the records, because of being in the business [NEMS record store].

And he said, 'They are four boys and I'd like to manage them. It wouldn't take any longer than two half days at a time, it's just sort of a part-time occupation.' He said it would never interfere with business.

"But the first time we met the Beatles, Brian was very insistent that we should go ahead with them, and I'd never been to a Rock and Roll concert before and I asked him what I should wear. And he said he hadn't either..."

It was decided that Brian would be the Beatles' manager at a meeting on December 10, 1961. Their first contract was for a five year period. The contract was formally signed at Pete Best's house on January 24, 1962, with Alistair Taylor as witness, although Brian, himself, didn't sign it. When asked why later, Brian answered "Well, if they ever want to tear it up, they can hold me but I can't hold them."

More on the story of Brian Epstein and the Beatles the day after tomorrow. Now, let's get on with our Top 100 Beatles' songs countdown.

At #90 is Run for Your Life, a song recorded by the Beatles for their 1965 album Rubber Soul, and primarily written by John. The song's lyrics establish a threatening tone towards the singer's unnamed girlfriend (referred to throughout the song as "little girl"), claiming "I'd rather see you dead, little girl, than to be with another man." The line was taken from an early Elvis Presley song, Baby, Let's Play Hous" (written by Arthur Gunter). Lennon designated this song as his "least favourite Beatles song" in a 1973 interview and later said it was the song he most regretted writing (probably because of the misogyny of the lyrics, because the melody was just fine.) He also stated that the song was one of George Harrison's favourite songs on Rubber Soul at that time, despite Lennon's dislike of it.

Here's an alternate version, because YouTube and original Beatles' versions are like oil and water...

At #89, we find one of Paul's fun songs, recorded for the White Album (1968). John Lennon "openly and vocally detested" the song, calling it Paul's "granny music shit".

Paul McCartney wrote the song around the time that Highlife and Reggae were beginning to become popular in Britain. The starting lyric, "Desmond has a barrow in the market-place", was a reference to the first internationally renowned Jamaican Ska and Reggae performer Desmond Dekker who had just had a successful tour of the UK. The tag line "ob-la-di, ob-la-da, life goes on, brah" was an expression used by Nigerian conga player Jimmy Scott-Emuakpor, an acquaintance of McCartney.

It was released as a single that same year in many countries, where it became a smash hit, but not in their native United Kingdom, nor in the United States until 1976. Sensing a void, the Scottish pop band Marmalade released their rendition of Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da in 1968. Their version reached #1 in the UK Singles Chart in January 1969, making them the first Scottish group to ever top that chart. Their cover sold around half a million in the UK, and a million copies globally by April 1969.

At #88 is another song from the White Album: I Will was a small gem (literally small, since it was less than 2 minutes long) written by Paul. During take 19 of I Will, McCartney ad-libbed an untitled and uncopyrighted song (referred to as Can You Take Me Back? by author Ian MacDonald), a 28-second segment of which ended up on side 4 of the album The Beatles as what MacDonald described as “a sinister introduction to Revolution 9”.

At #87, another McCartney composition: The Fool On The Hill was recorded in 1967. It was included on the Magical Mystery Tour EP and album, and presented in the Magical Mystery Tour film.

McCartney played the song for John Lennon during a writing session for With a Little Help from My Friends, and Lennon told him to write it down. McCartney did not; he was sure he would not forget it. In his 1980 interview with Playboy, Lennon said, "Now that's Paul. Another good lyric. Shows he's capable of writing complete songs."

Ray Thomas of the Moody Blues has said that he and bandmate Mike Pinder contributed harmonicas to the song alongside Lennon and George Harrison.

Here's a later live version by McCartney in his solo career:

The song achieved perhaps its most widespread popular audience as a top ten hit single by Sérgio Mendes & Brasil '66 in 1968.

At #86, a song that's a favorite of Recordman: The Word was written by both John Lennon and Paul McCartney and recorded with Lennon on lead vocals, with McCartney and Harrison doing the harmony vocals. It was first released on their 1965 album Rubber Soul.

They wrote it after smoking marijuana, something they hadn't done before in a composing session, which from McCartney's perspective (opposite to Lennon's), "got in the way of songwriting". McCartney on the subject:

"We smoked a bit of pot, then we wrote out a multicolored lyric sheet, the first time we'd ever done that. We normally didn't smoke when we were working. It got in the way of songwriting because it would just cloud your mind up — "Oh, shit, what are we doing?" It's better to be straight. But we did this multicolor thing."

This is the best version that I could find: it's not the original mix, but it's not terrible either.

At #85, Good Day Sunshine (recorded for Revolver) was McCartney's attempt, one hot summer afternoon, to write a song in the vein of the Lovin' Spoonful's idyllic, old-fashioned Daydream. "That was our favorite record of theirs," McCartney said.

The song benefits from one of George Martin's ingenious studio devices: recording specific parts at different tape speeds. Though McCartney handles the piano chords on Good Day Sunshine, Martin - an accomplished keyboardist who contributed to a number of Beatle recordings - is responsible for the slowed-down honky-tonk piano solo that follows the abbreviated second verse.

The result is a peppy break that sounds organic even though it's the product of tape-manipulation trickery. Martin's nuanced approach to recording technology - using it to serve the music, not as a gimmick — is arguably his biggest contribution to Revolver and everything that followed. "George Martin [was] quite experimental for who he was, a grown-up," said McCartney.

At #84, there's Dear Prudence, a song written by John for the White Album (1968).

When the Beatles arrived in India to study with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the actress Mia Farrow and her 20-year-old sister, Prudence, were already there. Prudence got so deeply into meditation that she refused to come out of her hut. "We saw her twice in the two weeks I was there," Starr recalled. "Everyone would be banging on the door: 'Are you still alive?'" As Lennon put it, Prudence "was trying to reach God quicker than anybody else. That was the competition in Maharishi's camp: Who was going to get cosmic first?"

Lennon turned the incident into Dear Prudence, which he wrote in India on acoustic guitar, as a gentle invitation to "come out to play." With its fingerpicking folk-guitar style — taught to Lennon by Donovan, who spent time with the Beatles in Rishikesh — and wistful nursery-rhyme lyrics, the song became one of the band's most poignant evocations of childhood. It was recorded after Starr had stormed out of the studio and briefly quit the band, so McCartney plays drums on it, as well as bass, piano and flügelhorn.

Here's the most tolerable version I could find on YouTube:

At #83 we find Paperback Writer, written by Paul and released as the A-side of their eleventh single. The single went to the #1 in the United States, United Kingdom, Ireland, West Germany, Australia, New Zealand and Norway.

'They were great vocalists - they knew instinctively what harmonies to pitch," said George Martin. But in the sumptuous intro to Paperback Writer, Lennon, McCartney and Harrison went beyond mere formation singing. The trio transformed the title lyric into a medieval chorale that sounded like She Loves You dipped in acid. Fastened to a roaring Pop song, that sleet of harmonies - combined with the paisley haze of the record's B-side, Rain - formally announced the Beatles' immersion into psychedelia.

"The way the song itself is shaped and the slow, contrapuntal statements from the backing voices — no one had really done that before," Martin claimed. The producer acknowledged that the Beach Boys were "a great inspiration" to the Beatles, but insisted that his charges had already perfected their vocal craft back when they were playing their club residencies in Hamburg, Germany: "Every night they'd be singing — they'd listen to American R&B records and imitate them," he said.

McCartney came up with the song's unusual structure on the long drive out to Lennon's house, where the duo frequently spent their afternoons writing songs. "I would often start thinking away and writing on my way out, and I developed the whole idea in the car," he said. "I came in, had my bowl of cornflakes and said, 'How's about if we write a letter: "Dear Sir or Madam," next line, next paragraph, etc.?'" (Some have suggested that the lyric about an aspiring hack was a jab at Lennon, who had published two books of cheeky surrealism, In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works.) Lennon later described Paperback Writer as the "son of Day Tripper — meaning a Rock & Roll song with a guitar lick on a fuzzy, loud guitar."

To engineer Geoff Emerick, the secret ingredient was the propulsive boom he got out of Starr's bass drum. "No one, as far as I remember on record," said Emerick, "had a bass drum sounding like that. We had the front skin off the bass drum and stuffed it with sweaters." Emerick also placed a microphone within an inch of the drum, for which he was reprimanded by EMI studio executives: "You couldn't go nearer than two feet to the bass drum, because the air pressure would damage the microphone."

The success of Paperback Writer forced a revision of that policy. "I got a letter from EMI allowing me to do that," Emerick said, "but only on Beatles sessions."

At #82 we find One After 909, written by John Lennon, with input from Paul McCartney, and originally released in 1970 on the album Let It Be. The song was written no later than spring 1960 and perhaps as early as 1957, and is one of the first Lennon–McCartney compositions.

In his 1980 Playboy interview Lennon explained, "That was something I wrote when I was about seventeen. I lived at 9 Newcastle Road. I was born on the ninth of October, the ninth [sic] month. It's just a number that follows me around, but, numerologically, apparently I'm a number six or a three or something, but it's all part of nine."

McCartney said, "It's not a great song but it's a great favourite of mine because it has great memories for me of John and I trying to write a bluesy freight-train song. There were a lot of those songs at the time, like Midnight Special, Freight Train, Rock Island Line, so this was the One After 909; she didn't get the 909, she got the one after it."

This is a pre-fame version from 1962:

Finally for today, at #81, You Can't Do That, a song written by John and released as the B-side of their sixth British single, Can't Buy Me Love (1964).

Four days after they returned from their triumphant first American tour, the Beatles were back in the studio, trying to meet the demand for new recordings. (It was also Harrison's 21st birthday, but he didn't exactly have time to answer the 30,000 birthday cards he received.) On the docket that day was a new song by Lennon that reflected his love for hard-edged American R&B — "a cowbell going four in the bar and the chord going chatoong!" as he put it.

You Can't Do That features an instrument Harrison had acquired in New York a few weeks earlier, when the band was in town to tape its first Ed Sullivan Show appearance: a 12-string Rickenbacker 360/12 guitar, the second one ever built, which would define the Beatles' sound for the next two years. But the lead-guitar part, featuring a choppy, tone-bending solo, is played by Lennon. "I have a definite style of playing — I've always had," Lennon told Rolling Stone. "But I was overshadowed. They call George the invisible singer. I'm the invisible guitarist."

Here's a live version from that period:


  1. I'm the one who pushed for "The Fool on the Hill" and "One After 909." "Fool" is one of Paul's purest melodies, and I even like the Mendes cover. The flute is an especially nice touch. It and "Walrus" were the two songs that stood out for me on the "Magical Mystery Tour" EP. I liked "One After 909" on first hearing it on the "Let It Be" album. Much of the rest of the album was a puzzle to me--such a change from "Abbey Road"! Of course, the guys were trying to get back to basics, whatever that means. For me, nothing replaces a great melody and a solid lyric. I remember a reviewer at the time declaring that "C'mon baby don't be cold as ice" was the best line the Beatles ever wrote. It was the kind of song that made me want to dance, or at least move around rhythmically. The Beatles seemed to be having such a good time! It was infectious.

    1. Hello AFHI! My first contact with the Beatles was through the red and blue double albums, in the early 70s. I knew and loved Fool On The Hill from that time, and I was glad that it was on your list so that I could vote for it. I only first heard One After 909 in 1976, when I bought the Let It Be album. I listen to it with pleasure, but I wouldn't say it's one of my favorite tracks.

  2. My intro to the Beatles was Meet The Beatles, the American version of Please Please Me in early '64. Most of their songs come with a childhood memory of one sort or another and it still happens to this day. The second round of songs, with the exception of One After 909 which I'm indifferent to, are all great songs I would be happy to hear any day of the week. You singled me out in your presentation of The Word so I'll talk a little of why I love it. The summer of '67 is generally referred to as the Summer Of Love but the boys, as par for the course, were way ahead of the pack as is evident with The Word. The simple refrain "It's the!" to my ears says it all. Two years later they continued that theme with All You Need Is Love but The Word did it first. They weren't singing about a personal sort of love like man/woman or mother/child but the universal kind of love that humanity aspires to. The music itself is simple but so of it's time that I'm instantly transported to early '66, probably the last year of childhood innocence for me as I stood at the brink of teen-hood.
    Say the word and you'll be free
    Say the word and be like me
    Say the word I'm thinking of
    Have you heard? The word is love!

    1. The Beatles had that extraordinary gift: using simple lyrics, definitely simpler than Dylan, they were able to convey complex emotions and universally applicable, yet utterly original thoughts. If you add to that the inventive and ingenious melodies, the production-from-the future and their unique harmonies, you have one third of the Beatles phenomenon. The second third has to do with their personalities and the times in which they blossomed. the final third is pure magic.