Sunday, July 25, 2010

July 18, 2009: The Ten Worst Beatles Songs

OK, so it’s pretty much universally acknowledged that The Beatles have one of the most critic-proof discographies of any band ever. Anyone who says they don’t like the Beatles are basically saying they don’t like music. Still every song in their catalog is not on the level of “Strawberry Fields Forever” or “And Your Bird Can Sing” or “Rain” or [insert the title of your personal favorite here]. So I thought it would be mildly interesting and potentially iconoclastic to sift through their formidable body of work in search of the duds. Impressively, even the mass of Beatle flops is still fairly decent, which is why I’m limiting this list to a mere ten tracks. I decided that choosing covers would be cheating, so goofy toss-offs like “Act Naturally”, “Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby”, and “Till There Was You” are not present, even though they kind of deserve places on this list. Same thing goes for gimmick tracks, experiments, or songs of excessive brevity; so no “Wild Honey Pie”, “Maggie Mae”, “Flying”, or “Revolution 9” (which really is a pretty stunning piece of…ummm…music?). So brace yourself as I tear the Beatles a new pee-hole (which they will then have to fix in order to keep their minds from wandering), because here comes the Ten Worst Beatles Songs!

10. “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” (from Abbey Road)

Paul McCartney is a master melodist… no question… but he also has an irritating tendency to devolve into cutesiness, especially when in “musical hall” mode. Earlier efforts along these lines, like “Good Day Sunshine” and the startlingly authentic “Honey Pie”, could be quite good. “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” goes too far, though. While the song should receive points for its ironically gruesome lyrics (a mad college kid goes around bonking people to death with his giant tool), the execution is so corny (ugh…those anvil bangs on the chorus!) and overproduced that any ironic charm is neutralized. Paul’s bandmates were equally unimpressed with “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”, George Harrison famously carping “Sometimes Paul would make us do these really fruity songs. I mean, my god, Maxwell’s Silver Hammer was so fruity.” He wasn’t kidding. That headache you’re getting while listening to “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” ain’t from all the head bonking… it’s a sugar-induced hangover.

9. “Your Mother Should Know” (from Magical Mystery tour)

After Help! the Beatles apparently had very little interest in composing quality original material for their films. Still, much of the new songs they delivered for the Magical Mystery Tour and Yellow Submarine soundtracks had enough patented-Beatle charm to overcome their compositional shortcomings, and in some cases (“I am the Walrus”, “Hey Bulldog”, “It’s All Too Much”) the songs were as thrilling as anything the group had ever done. “Your Mother Should Now” is not completely devoid of charm (the melody is pleasant enough, the harmonies are nice and mildly eerie, and I’ve always liked the incongruous flourish of Indian tamboura on the coda), but it is most definitely a throwaway with lazily repetitious lyrics and a rote music hall approach. And if you’re looking for dynamics, you ain’t gonna find them here.

8. “Revolution 1” (from The Beatles)

Sometimes artists are their own worst evaluators. John Lennon is a classic example of this. In various interviews he declared the sublime “And Your Bird Can Sing” a “horror” and the gut-wrenching “Dig a Pony” “a piece of garbage”, while also griping that he was disappointed that the slow, lifeless version of “Revolution” was not the one released as a single. Seriously? While the electrified version of “Revolution” released as the B-side of “Hey Jude” is one of the Beatles’ rawest, most exciting recordings, the one dubbed “Revolution 1” and tacked onto side four of The Beatles is a drag. It’s a fairly open secret that Lennon was riding low in a smack-induced stupor during this period, and he sounds like he’d just taken a great big shot before cutting this flaccid recording (which was originally over ten minutes in length and contained some of the tape-loop tomfoolery that would eventually be developed into the apocalyptic “Revolution 9.” A version of this recording was recently leaked.) The brass is a nice touch that gives “Revolution 1” a bit of personality, but overall, those who prefer it over the supercharged “Revolution” must be riding the white tiger themselves.

The extended version:

7. “Love Me Do” (from Please Please Me)

It’s not too hard to see why the Fabs had so much trouble snagging a U.S. record label when this was the best they could come up with for a debut single. Despite its place among the Beatles’ greatest hits, “Love Me Do” is pretty limp fare. With its monotonous, sing-songy melody, its wheezy harmonica, lumbering rhythm, and sub-primitive lyrics, “Love Me Do” bears no indication that Lennon and McCartney were on the precipice of developing into the most sophisticated songwriters in pop history.

6. “From Me to You” (single)

I suppose this is where this list starts veering away from criticizing poor songwriting/recording efforts and into the realm of personal preference. “From Me to You” is a breezy enough example of the early Beatles, sporting a clever switch from major-key verses to a minor-key bridge. Still I’m not crazy about the song. It feels like the Beatles are already resorting to clichés. Here again are the lumbering rhythm and Dylanesque harmonica from “Love Me Do”, as well as those “whoos” that were so exhilarating in “Twist and Shout.” Of course, this is not the last time the Beatles would trot out these tropes (some of them are also present in the flip-side of “From Me to You”, “Thank You Girl”, which is one of my favorite early Beatle numbers), but to my ears they sound forced on “From Me to You”.

5. “Goodnight” (from The Beatles)

“Goodnight” is just a couple of mop-top hairs shy of being a full-fledged gimmick track. On that level, it’s kind of amusing with its absurd Disney-derived orchestra and choir and Ringo’s ever-so-precious whispers of “Goodnight everybody, everywhere” on the outro. It’s also a perfect closer to The Beatles: a harrowing and wonderfully disjointed listening experience that culminates in “Revolution 9”, the most harrowing and disjointed piece of music on any Beatles record. “Goodnight” is a cunningly saccharine antidote to the terrifying “Revolution 9”; a kitschy wink suggesting that the Beatles hadn’t gone completely around the bend even though this is one of the most around-the-bend songs they recorded. Taken on its own, “Goodnight” loses all of these qualities that make it so appealing in the context of the album. Robbed of the shock of hearing it on the cloven heels of “Revolution 9”, “Goodnight” is a near toxic cocktail of cloying bombast and tasteless schmaltz.

4. “What Goes On” (from Rubber Soul)

Inversely to the previous Ringo-sung track on this list, “What Goes On” is a song that doesn’t work because of its context. While The Beatles revels in its eclecticism, Rubber Soul is nearly conceptual in its reliance on acoustic instrumentation and folk-rock mellowness. So hearing this sprightly blast of C&W cheese in the middle of the album breaks its alluring spell for a solid 2:51. If “What Goes On” had been a B-side, it would have been perfectly adequate. As a piece of the Rubber Soul puzzle, it’s practically an act of sabotage.

3. “All You Need is Love” (from Yellow Submarine)

Is it sincere? Is it some sneering parody of the flower-power generation? I suppose that at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter… especially after a zillion-odd choruses of “Love Love Love” sung in sickly falsetto. Junked up with an “everything but the kitchen sink” arrangement that does nothing to mask its lyrical and melodic shortcomings, “All You Need Is Love” has nevertheless become a classic largely because of its peace-and-love message, which sounds trite today even though it’s still pretty hard to refute.

2. “All Together Now” (from Yellow Submarine)

Here’s another example of McCartney tossing one off for a movie soundtrack. The difference is that he actually wanted to make Magical Mystery Tour. Imagine how disinterested he must have been when he learned he was required to compose an original track for a fucking cartoon! If Lennon had written “All Together Now”, its crappiness would have come off as a defiant act of disdain for a project he had zero involvement or interest in. From McCartney’s pen, it’s more patronizing: “Hey, a cartoon! Kids like cartoons! I’m going to write the kind of song kids like!” Well, maybe very, very dumb kids. “All Together Now” has none of the fresh fantasy or innocence of “Yellow Submarine”, the children’s song that inspired the Beatles’ feature-length cartoon (which even they admitted was wonderful after seeing it). Apparently, British football fans liked to sing this one in the stands before hitting each other in the faces with folding chairs.

1. “The Long and Winding Road” (from Let It Be)

If anyone wants to know how far heroes can fall, they need listen no further than “The Long and Winding Road”. First of all, you have Paul McCartney—the cat who wrote “Eleanor Rigby” and “Hey Jude” and “Got to Get You Into My Life” and “You Won’t See Me” and “Paperback Writer” and so many other great songs—turning out the kind of MOR tripe one would expect to hear on an Engelbert Humperdinck record. Then you have the legendary Phil Spector (back in the days when he was legendary for his production prowess and not for his outlaw status) swathing the track with choirs and syrupy strings and… well, all the crap that made “Goodnight” so unbearable. But what makes “The Long and Winding Road” so much worse is that it is utterly devoid of the irony that makes “Goodnight” at least work as a joke. McCartney scores some points for his well-known disapproval of Spector’s smothering production (Lennon was responsible for bringing Spector on board to “salvage” the tapes that would ultimately become Let It Be), but he still must take some of the blame for composing this smarmy song in the first place.

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