Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Brian Epstein & The Beatles Top 100 Countdown

A couple of days ago, we paused our story at the point when the Beatles signed a contract on January 24, 1962, naming Brian Epstein as their manager for a 5 year period.

Brian saw the potential of The Beatles and in return, John, Paul, George and Ringo put their trust in him. He became their manager because he was a young businessman with a love of music who looked the part. In turn, that was one of the first changes he made to the denim jean, leather jacket wearing band he found: he gave them a physical makeover, and from there was born the famous black and white suits and the much copied moptops. He instructed them not to smoke or swear on stage. Brian also encouraged the boys to make a rather theatrical synchronized bow at the conclusion of each song when performing in concert or on television. All of the Beatles went along with their new image although there was some initial very minor grumbling from John and George.

During his 'demythologize the Beatles' phase in 1970, John made references to how these image changes had somehow "tamed the real Beatles" and that he'd been against it at the time. However, most contemporary reports - and indeed recent McCartney comments - note that at the time, all of the Beatles (including John) were happy to follow Epstein's shrewd advice, particularly when it proved to be 100% effective. The reality is that in the climate of the early 60's no British or American TV show would have given the Beatles (or any other pop group) even five seconds of air time looking as they did pre-Brian.

From the beginning, The Beatles knew Brian was gay; in fact, they saw his access to the gay network within show business as an opportunity for them to grow and expand.

“We were just Liverpool guys so the word was queer not gay…That’s the way it was” Paul McCartney is quoted in The Brian Epstein Story. “We didn’t really have a problem with it… I think we suspected that he might hit on one of us. So I think in the early days we were slightly wondering whether that was his interest in us. But in my personal knowledge that wasn’t his interest.”

Now that he was signed to be their manager, it was Brian's job to get them a recording contract. He used the clout of his family's record stores in Liverpool to get meetings with all the major British record companies. But the Beatles were rejected by every label including the two biggest companies, EMI and Decca. Brian finally secured a contract for the Beatles in June 1962 when they were signed by George Martin, head of one of EMI's smallest labels, Parlophone. To be continued...

Now, let's get on with our Top 100 Beatles' songs countdown.

We start off our countdown with three "heavy" Beatles' songs. At #70, a Lennon song, the B-side to Get Back, a song called Don’t Let Me Down.

When the Get Back/Don't Let Me Down single came out in May 1969, it was advertised as "The Beatles as nature intended . . . the first Beatles record which is as live as can be, in this electronic age. There's no electronic whatchamacallit." Both sides of the single were recorded live at Apple Studios, with the Beatles joined only by keyboardist Billy Preston, who was taking a break from Ray Charles' band.

In 1980, Lennon summed up the inspiration for the song tersely: "That's me, singing about Yoko." McCartney later went into more detail: "It was a very tense period. John was with Yoko and had escalated to heroin and all the accompanying paranoias, and he was putting himself out on a limb. I think that as much as it excited and amused him, at the same time it secretly terrified him. So Don't Let Me Down was a genuine plea."

Summoning the emotional intensity to sing it was also difficult for Lennon, who asked Starr to provide a cymbal crash just before his vocals to "give me the courage to come screaming in."

At #69 here's the "song Charles Manson stole from The Beatles" as Bono put it. Helter Skelter was one of McCartney's songs from The White Album (1968).

With the raucous Helter Skelter, the Beatles set out to beat a heavy band at its own game. McCartney had taken issue with a review of the Who's 1967 single I Can See for Miles that referred to the song as "a marathon epic of swearing cymbals and cursing guitars." "It wasn't rough [or full of] screaming," he said of the song. "So I thought, 'We'll do one like that, then.'"

The Beatles recorded Helter Skelter on a night when, as engineer Brian Gibson recalled, "they were completely out of their heads." Lennon played out-of-tune bass and saxophone, and Starr was serious when he screamed, "I've got blisters on my fingers!"

Despite its association with Charles Manson — Helter Skelter was written in blood at the site of one of the Manson Family murders — the title has an innocent meaning: A "helter skelter" is a playground slide. "I was using the symbol as a ride from the top to the bottom — the rise and fall of the Roman Empire," McCartney said. "This was the demise, the going down."

Here's a good live version of the song by Paul McCartney:

... Since we've mentioned Bono, here's the U2 version:

At #68 is a song Lennon had written for Revolver (1966). Lennon described She Said She Said as "an 'acidy' song" with lyrics inspired by actor Peter Fonda's comments during an LSD trip in 1965 with members of the Beatles and the Byrds.

In late August 1965, Brian Epstein had rented a house at 2850 Benedict Canyon Drive in Beverly Hills, California for the Beatles' six-day respite from their US tour. The large Spanish-style house was tucked into the side of a mountain. Soon their address became widely known and the area was besieged by fans, who blocked roads and tried to scale the steep canyon while others rented helicopters to spy from overhead. The police department detailed a tactical squad of officers to protect the band and the house. The Beatles found it impossible to leave and instead invited guests, including actors Eleanor Bron (who co-starred with them in Help!), Peggy Lipton and folk singer Joan Baez. On 24 August, they hosted the Byrds and actor Peter Fonda and, all except Paul McCartney, took LSD.

As the group passed time in the large sunken tub in the bathroom, Fonda brought up his nearly fatal self-inflicted childhood gunshot accident, writing later that he was trying to comfort a frightened George Harrison. Fonda said that he knew what it was like to be dead. Lennon snapped, "Listen mate, shut up about that stuff", and "You're making me feel like I've never been born." Lennon later explained: "We didn't want to hear about that! We were on an acid trip and the sun was shining and the girls were dancing (some from Playboy, I believe) and the whole thing was really beautiful and Sixties. And this guy – who I really didn't know, he hadn't made Easy Rider or anything – kept coming over, wearing shades, saying 'I know what it's like to be dead,' and we kept leaving him because he was so boring. It was scary, when you're flying high: 'Don't tell me about it. I don't want to know what it's like to be dead!'" Harrison recalls in The Beatles Anthology: "[Fonda] was showing us his bullet wound. He was very uncool."

Lennon held on to his anger, at first titling the song He Said He Said and, after quoting Fonda at the beginning, throwing those words back at him with vicious glee. "I said, 'Who put all that crap in your head?'" Lennon sang at one point in his earliest demo. (The line he settled on — "I said, 'Who put all those things in your head?'" — was softer, funnier, but still on target.) Lennon also realized he had written himself into a corner: He dropped the tune for a few days, returning to it with a bridge that — out of time with the rest of the shuffling rhythm, bright with childhood innocence — shifted the song from pure recrimination to a spirited­argument about ego and immortality, drenched in sighing harmonies and driven by Starr's spirited drumming.

The band's California trip didn't last long, but L.A. and San Francisco would have flashbacks to that psychedelic moment for years. The hippie-chic scene calibrated itself to whatever the Beatles did. From the Beach Boys to Love to the Grateful Dead, the West Coast-pop sound of the next several years sprang directly from Revolver — especially She Said She Said and its conjunction of melodic immediacy and acid-fueled mind games.

The songs that follow are of a more light-hearted mood. At #67, yet another great song from one of their greatest albums, Revolver. And Your Bird Can Sing was written by Lennon with the help of McCartney, with Lennon handling the lead vocals.

The first time the Beatles recorded And Your Bird Can Sing, they ended up with any other band's idea of a hit — a supercharged variation on the folk-rock sound of the Byrds' Eight Miles High, built around Harrison's 12-string guitar and close harmonies. But they knew they could do better. Six days later, the Beatles trashed the original version (whose working title was You Don't Get Me) and spent 12 hours constructing a new one, which tightened up Harrison and McCartney's daredevil dual-guitar leads and made them the centerpiece of a brighter, more propulsive new arrangement.

Lennon later described And Your Bird Can Sing as a "throwaway." Although its lyrics don't make a lot of sense, the line "You say you've seen seven wonders" may refer to the night the Beatles smoked pot with Bob Dylan in New York in 1964. The experience caused a stoned McCartney to excitedly pronounce what he had just learned was the key to life: "There are seven levels."

At #66, I’ll Follow The Sun is a McCartney song released in 1964 on the Beatles for Sale album in the United Kingdom and on Beatles '65 in the United States, but was written long before that year: a version recorded in 1960 can be found on the bootleg record You Might As Well Call Us the Quarrymen. The song is somewhat of a cult favourite. But the Beatles didn't get around to cutting it until they were scrambling for new material.

One reason they didn't use the song before was because it wasn't tough enough for their leather-jacketed early image. By the time they did record it, the rhythm had changed from a rockabilly shuffle to a gentle cha-cha. And Starr kept the beat by smacking his palms on his knees.

"The next [single] had to always be different," McCartney said. "We didn't want to fall into the Supremes trap where they all sounded similar, so we were always keen on having varied instrumentation. Ringo couldn't keep changing his drum kit, but he could change his snare, tap a cardboard box or slap his knees."

At #65 is a one of the Beatles' biggest hits. Hello, Goodbye was written by Paul McCartney. Backed by John Lennon's I Am the Walrus, it was issued as a non-album single in November 1967, the group's first release since the death of their manager, Brian Epstein. The single was commercially successful around the world, topping charts in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and several other countries.

McCartney never claimed that the irresistibly bouncey Hello, Goodbye was his most profound songwriting moment. "It's just a song of duality, with me advocating the more positive," he said. Brian Epstein's assistant Alistair Taylor remembered McCartney getting the idea while demonstrating how to write a song: "He had a marvelous old hand-carved harmonium. [He told me to] hit any note on the keyboard . . . and I'll do the same. Whenever I shout out a word, you shout the opposite, and I'll make up a tune. 'Black,' he started. 'White,' I replied. 'Yes.' 'No.' 'Hello.' 'Goodbye.'" Although the song would be Number One for three weeks in the US and for seven weeks in the UK, Lennon was not impressed. "[I Am the Walrus] was the B side to Hello, Goodbye," he said incredulously. "Can you believe it?"

Hello Goodbye is a great song, but Lennon was right. I Am the Walrus is on an another level altogether.

Lovely Rita, a McCartney song from Sgt. Pepper's (1967), is at #64. It is about a female traffic warden and the narrator's affection for her.

The term "meter-maid", largely unknown in the UK prior to the song's release, is American slang for a female traffic warden. According to some sources, the song originates from when a female traffic warden named Meta Davies issued a parking citation to McCartney outside Abbey Road Studios. Instead of becoming angry, he accepted it with good grace and expressed his feelings in song. When asked why he had called her "Rita," McCartney replied, "Well, she looked like a Rita to me".

The unusual noises during the song after the lines "and the bag across her shoulder/ made her look a little like a military man" were John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison playing comb and paper.

Pink Floyd watched the Beatles recording Lovely Rita. Later, Pink Floyd took the effects of Lovely Rita for recording their instrumental compostition, Pow R. Toc H. from their debut album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.

Glass Onion, a John Lennon song from The White Album (1968) is at #63. The song refers to several earlier Beatles songs, including Strawberry Fields Forever, I Am the Walrus, Lady Madonna, The Fool on the Hill, and Fixing a Hole. The song also refers to the "Cast Iron Shore", a coastal area of south Liverpool known to local people as "The Cazzy".

The song's "the Walrus was Paul" lyric is both a reference to I Am the Walrus and Lennon saying "something nice to Paul" in response to changes in their relationship at that time. Later, the line was interpreted as a "clue" in the "Paul is dead" urban legend that alleged McCartney died in 1966 during the recording of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and was replaced by a look-alike and sound-alike. The line is preceded with "Well, here's another clue for you all".

Unfortunately, the music police haven't left any version of the song for a free listen on the Internet. So, here are the first 30 seconds of the song:

At #62, we find a song written by George Harrison. McCartney played the screeching-raga guitar solo, and Lennon contributed to the lyrics. But in its pithy cynicism, Taxman was strictly Harrison's, a contagious blast of angry Guitar Rock. His slap at Her Majesty's Government landed the prized position on Revolver: Side One, Track One.

"Taxman was when I first realized that even though we had started earning money, we were actually giving most of it away in taxes," Harrison later wrote. "The government's taking over 90 percent of all our money," Starr once complained. "We're left with one-ninth of a pound."

Taxman represents a crucial link between the guitar-driven clang of the Beatles' 1963-65 sound and the emerging splendor of the group's experiments in psychedelia. The song is skeleton funk — Harrison's choppy fuzz-toned guitar chords moving against an R&B dance beat, but the extra hours he and engineer Geoff Emerick spent on guitar tone on Revolver foreshadowed Harrison's intense plunge into Indian music and the sitar on later songs such as Within You Without You and The Inner Light.

Finally for today, at #61 is one of the most important songs in Beatles history. Love Me Do was their first UK hit, making a not very impressive #17 in the UK chart. It was a foot in the door though. In order for it to work, the follow-up single needed to perform spectacularly. So, a lot was riding on Please Please Me. The Roy Orbison inspired song, a John Lennon composition, did the trick: released in the UK on 11 January 1963 it reached #1 on the New Musical Express and Melody Maker charts and #2 on the Record Retailer chart, which subsequently evolved into the UK Singles Chart.

Lennon wrote the song at his aunt Mimi's house. "I remember the day and the pink coverlet on the bed," he said years later. "And I heard Roy Orbison doing Only the Lonely or something. That's where that came from. And I was always intrigued by the words of 'Please, lend your little ears to my pleas' [from Crosby's 1932 song Please]. I [loved] the double use of the word 'please.'"

"If you imagine it much slower, which is how John wrote it, it's got everything," said McCartney. "The big high notes, all the hallmarks of a Roy Orbison song."

Please Please Me was one of the songs the Beatles played for George Martin at their second recording session on September 11th, 1962, at EMI Studios. Starr recalled that "while we were recording it, I was playing a bass drum with a maraca in one hand and a tambourine in the other" — which, Starr suspects, is the reason Martin decided to use a session drummer for Love Me Do, which they also recorded that day.

Martin wasn't impressed with the slow Please Please Me, which he called "a dirge." He suggested that they play the song faster and try to liven up the arrangement.

After Love Me Do became a hit, the Beatles were summoned back to the studio to work on a follow-up. When they returned to Abbey Road on November 26th, Martin wanted them to release a song by Mitch Murray called How Do You Do It. The Beatles tried to persuade him that they should do an original song instead, but the producer didn't think anything they had written was as good as the Murray song. (Martin was somewhat vindicated when Gerry and the Pacemakers had a Number One hit with How Do You Do It the following year.) They suggested Please Please Me, adding that they had heeded Martin's advice, speeding up the tempo and adding a harmonica part that mimicked Harrison's opening guitar riff.

The Beatles knew they had broken new ground. "We lifted the tempo, and suddenly there was that fast Beatles spirit," said McCartney. Lennon later said that "by the time the session came around, we were so happy we couldn't get it recorded fast enough." Starr's steady, propulsive backbeat led Martin to concede he had been wrong about the drummer's skills.

The new version of Please Please Me had an irresistible energy and an aggressive sexuality. (Perhaps too aggressive — Capitol Records wouldn't put the single out in America because some who heard the song had interpreted the lyrics as an ode to oral sex, and Chicago's Vee-Jay label ended up releasing Please Please Me.) When the band had finished laying down the track, Martin announced over the studio's intercom, "Gentlemen, I think you've got your first Number One."

But the song's greatest endorsement may have come from Lennon's aunt Mimi, who hadn't been convinced by Love Me Do that her nephew's band had much of a future. Then she heard Please Please Me. "That's more like it," she told Lennon. "That should do well."

Here are the Beatles performing Please Please Me on the Ed Sullivan Show:


  1. Set against the backdrop of the Profumo Affair, the Pet Shop Boys' "Nothing Has Been Proved" (as sung by the incomparable Dusty Springfield) references the Beatles in the line "Please Please Me's Number One." The song is from the 1989 film "Scandal." By the way, I was able to find a recording of "Glass Onion" in its entirety: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zv1645UtH9w

    1. Good morning AFHI! You know what? I love Nothing Has Been Proved, but I have never noticed the "Please Please Me's Number One" line. Many thanks for bringing it to my attention.

      Unfortunately your link to Glass Onion is geo-blocked and won't play where I live. Still, I'm not the target audience, so you do a great service by providing the link for everybody who's, if I may invent a word, "geo-capable." Thanks again, and if you have other links to songs that I only found live versions or alternate versions of, please do publish them. I'd love for the people who don't know the Beatles' music to make their acquaintance with the best versions possible.

    2. A lot of us have a VPN service that allows us to override geo-blocking. Mine is called ExpressVPN and it's pretty reliable.

    3. I didn't know that existed, AFHI. Is it easy to find and to operate?

    4. In my experience, it is. It costs about $100 a year. Google ExpressVPN. Tell them AFHI sent you! I've been meaning to ask if you've been following the auction of John's angry letter to Paul about the band's breakup that was written in 1971. It fetched $30,000. Here's a blurb: http://www.billboard.com/articles/news/7581535/john-lennonbeatles-breakup-letter-auction-30000

    5. Thanks for the info AFHI! I haven't been following the auction, but I read the letter now, following your link. I doesn't surprise me, it feels consistent with John's personality, the relationship of John and Paul, as well as other literature that appeared at that time: mainly John's interviews and the song How Do You Sleep. I only wish Mick and Keith were as open as to what really happened to Brian Jones...

  2. I also wanted to mention "The Hours and Times" (1991). This film explores the possibility that John and Brian may have had an affair on a vacation they took together in Spain just before the Beatles broke big in 1963. It was written and directed by Christopher Munch and boasts a couple of really powerful scenes. Ian Hart plays John for the first time (the second was in "Backbeat"), and he's fascinating. The actor who plays Epstein (David Angus) is less well known, but he captures that patrician sangfroid that I remember from appearances Epstein made on television. It's in black and white and runs about an hour. Here's a trailer:

    1. I haven't seen "The Hours and Times", AFHI, but I did see and enjoy "Backbeat". Ian Hart was also the star of another good film, "Land And Freedom" (1995) by Ken Loach.

      I will be dealing in detail with Brian's and John's Spanish vacation in two days from now, in the continuing story of Brian Epstein. You'll see that there are arguments for both cases. I think something physical might have happened, but I wouldn't call it an affair. There was lots of flirting, of course, but the physical, if it existed, was probably a one-time thing. More on that the day after tomorrow...