John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr wrote and recorded such consistently amazing songs that, even if you ignore all their #1 hits; and everything on their famous Red; and Blue; best-of compilations (which I’ll be doing for these more obscure Beatles lists), there are still dozens and dozens of amazing songs, some of which you might’ve missed along the way—even if The Beatles are the biggest, most influential band in rock history. As you get familiar with these songs, I think some of them might even surpass your old, more-overplayed favorites.
Cry For A Shadow
Never mind that it has no words, this jinglin’ and janglin’ Lennon/Harrison surf instrumental—originally released on 1963 EP My Bonnie—is one of the catchiest songs I’ve ever heard. I first discovered it when I bought a cassette copy of The Beatles Anthology while I was in high school, and proceeded to play it non-stop for about a week.
I’ll go out on a limb here and say that Help! is even better than more lauded Beatles flick A Hard Day’sNight. I love the stoned shenanigans, muted colors and wide-open cinematography of Help!, and the music is way better, too. (After seeing a few of these lists, you’ll notice that I have a soft-spot for the more folk-rocky trinity of “middle period” Beatles albums: Beatles For Sale, Help! and Rubber Soul.) Here’s a video of the Fab Four performing “Act Naturally.”
I’ve Just Seen a Face
This gorgeous, unadorned acoustic number—also from the Help! soundtrack—is my all-time favorite Beatles song. It genuinely captures the kind of happiness you can know only after experiencing deep longing and sadness. Every time I listen to it, the purity of Paul McCartney’s vocal and the simple poetry of his lyrics wash over me, transporting me to a romanticized time nearly two decades before I was born; a more innocent time, when life was as wholesome, uncluttered and satisfying as the 12-string-guitar plucks George Harrison scatters atop all those Beatles-pretty chords. Of course, I know this time never really existed (watching a few episodes of Mad Men; will cure you pretty damn quickly of any naivete about the early ‘60s). Still, that place of innocence does exist, if only inside of McCartney’s song. I remember being baffled when I learned that he’d written the tune when he was just 16. How could a 16-year-old write something so affecting, so perfect, so… optimistic? The more I thought about it, the more it made sense.
I’m Only Sleeping
From the chime of the opening strum, this song perfectly embodies its subject matter; I don’t think there’s a better example of a piece of music sounding and feeling exactly like what it’s about. It’s as if you could take the lyrics away and just have John Lennon lazily mumble indecipherable phrases in the same cadence and pitch, and everyone would still get the transmission, straight through their third eye.
This song was originally released as the B-side to 1966 single “Paperback Writer.” Both were recorded during the Revolver sessions but left off the album. The two tracks, taken together, are all the proof you’ll ever need of Paul McCartney’s mind-boggling bass chops and distinct, if erratic, style. “Rain” also features some of Ringo Starr’s most inventive drumming, a purposefully draggy feel, ringing guitars, classic three-part Beatles harmonies and a chorus so monumental it seems to sharply bend the space-time continuum (an interesting contrast, considering Lennon’s admission that the song was merely about how people are always bitching about the weather). You can almost feel the lysergic acid dripping off of this one, especially with the trippy backward vocals during the last verse. “Rain” is one of the first tracks to ever use this now-common technique. And many consider the short film below that accompanies the song to be the very first music video, planting the seeds for the MTV generation. (And here’s another cool clip of The Beatles premiering “Rain” on The Ed Sullivan Show.
recorded a cover of this minor-key Mexican standard—written in 1940 by the teenaged Consuelo Velázquez—in 1962, but it wasn’t officially released until the first Beatles Anthology came out in 1994. McCartney sings the lead on this one, and original Beatles drummer Pete Best is on the kit. The title translates as “Kiss Me a Lot.”
I’m a Loser
Listening to this song, you can hear John Lennon growing up as a lyricist. By the time The Beatles were working on their fourth album, Beatles for Sale (released in late 1964), the influence of Bob Dylan had begun inspiring them to be more ambitious, thematically and with their word choice (and Dylan, concurrently, was influenced by The Beatles to be more musically ambitious, especially with his chord structures). Check out Lennon’s lyrics on this song, as they leave the simple sentimentality of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” in the dust, dealing instead with more complicated emotions like self-doubt:
Although I laugh and I act like a clown / Beneath this mask I am wearing a frown / My Tears are falling like rain from the sky / Is it for her or myself that I cry? / I’m a loser / And I lost someone who’s near to me / I’m a loser / And I’m not what I appear to be
Perhaps this song is the quiet beginning of the entire self-loathing “hate myself and want to die” ethos of the ‘90s grunge/alternative movement. Kurt Cobain certainly was familiar enough with The Beatles’ work to have heard “I’m a Loser,” and who knows if there’s any correlation between this Lennon tune and Beck’s self-deprecating slacker anthem “Loser?”
Run For Your Life
later admitted in song that he was a jealous guy, but on “Run For Your LIfe” he’s disturbingly possessive. This song from Rubber Soul is unlike almost any other Beatles song in its threatening—even sinister—tone, sounding like it’d be more at home on a Stones record than an album by the more lighthearted Fab Four. With its dark, dangerous (albeit tongue-in-cheek) neuroticism, it’s probably the most rock ‘n’ roll tune The Beatles ever recorded—well, aside from “Helter Skelter.”
Love songs don’t get much sweeter or more gorgeously simple than this little McCartney ditty, which clocks in at just shy of two minutes. Appearing on The White Album in 1968, it was the first of several songs he wrote for future wife Linda Eastman.
This funky, upbeat Lennon riff-rocker somehow passed under my radar until last week, when I stumbled upon it while researching the first “Coolest Beatles Songs You Might Have Missed” list. I’d seen animated Beatles film Yellow Submarine at my friend Andy’s house late one Friday night during the mid ‘90s, while I was still in high school, but apparently, “Hey Bulldog” only appeared in the European theatrical release of Yellow Submarine until the film’s 1999 re-release. The song was on the soundtrack album, but I’d never owned a copy, and I wasn’t yet familiar with it. (Strange, considering I went to school at the University of Georgia, home of—you guessed it—the Georgia Bulldogs.) But that’s one of the things I love about music—just when you think you’ve exhausted a band’s catalog, just when you think you’ve heard it all, you stumble on something like “Hey Bulldog” and you feel like an excited kid again.
Three Cool Cats
Recorded New Year’s Day 1962 as part of The Beatles’ Decca Records audition, this Lieber & Stoller-penned Coasters cover features George Harrison on lead vocals and Pre-Ringo drummer Pete Best on the kit. You can hear the band goofing off at the end of this seedy beatnik shuffle, which it honed during its early dancehall and rock-club gigs.
What You’re Doing
I wouldn’t be surprised if Roger McGuinn heard this Paul McCartney tune—punctuated by George Harrison’s chiming 12-string Rickenbacker licks and the Beatles’ layered harmonies—and saw his entire future flash before his eyes. A month after this song was released on Beatles For Sale, he and the rest of The Byrds were in the studio cutting their debut record Mr. Tambourine Man, on which they’d take the 12-string jingle-jangle sound they’d heard The Beatles experiment with to new heights. But first there was this song.
And Your Bird Can Sing
Lennon and Harrison’s slightly fuzzed-out dual-lead-guitar riffing makes this song one of The Beatles’ best, not to mention the super-catchy chorus, Harrison and McCartney’s vibrant harmonies and the psychedelic, Zen-tinged lyrics, in which it seems Lennon is craving a simple life, uncluttered by material possessions.
Happiness Is a Warm Gun
When I was in 8th grade, I got the White Album for Christmas on cassette, and listened to it pretty much nonstop for the next few months. It was the early ’90s, but the music still sounded so fresh—so vibrant and completely relevant. Of all the tracks, there was one that caught my attention more than any of the others. I found the frequent shifts of meter and the distinct, seemingly unrelated sections of “Happiness is a Warm Gun” incredibly intriguing. John Lennon’s forlorn vocals and the haunting electric-guitar picking at the beginning almost gave me chills. Then, a minute-and-a-half into the song, after a bout of fuzzed-out rock-guitar riffing, the ’50s doo-wop part would kick in, washing down like a warm ray of sunshine. Toward the end, when the music pauses and Lennon hits that one high note so gracefully on the word “gun”—then, I actually do get chills. This is Lennon’s finest vocal performance.
It’s All Too Much
I first heard this song—originally released on the soundtrack to animated Beatles film Yellow Submarine—on March 26, 1995 at a Grateful Dead show in Atlanta. The concert was at now-defunct arena, The Omni, and the Dead’s latter-day keyboardist Vince Welnick was on lead vocals. The Beatles album version is breathtaking—a jewel of a song, shrouded in shimmering feedback. It was written by George Harrison about his overwhelming feelings for wife Patti Boyd-Harrison (who later inspired Eric Clapton’s “Layla”). Ms. Boyd, apparently, was quite the muse.
Things We Said Today
This wistful McCartney folk rocker—written for girlfriend/actress Jane Asher—appeared in The Beatles’ debut film, A Hard Day’s Night. It appears on the soundtrack, and was also the B-side to the U.K. version of the “Hard Day’s Night” single. Structurally, it’s one of McCartney’s most inventive early tunes, with some impressively unique chord changes, especially during the transitions from the verse to the chorus and back.
Think For Yourself
Compared to Lennon and McCartney, George Harrison didn’t write many Beatles songs, on average cranking out only one or two an album—but when he wrote something, he made it count, delivering some of the band’s finest tunes. Rubber Soul’s “Think for Yourself”—which implores listeners to question what they’re told and live a more examined, conscious life—is among them. The deftly layered harmonies on the chorus are a treat, as is McCartney’s fuzzbox bass riffing, which is some of the earliest on record anywhere.
Also from Rubber Soul, “Wait” is a true Lennon/McCartney collaboration. Both sing in tight signature harmony, Lennon having written the song’s verses and chorus and McCartney the bridge. The minor/major chord shift from verse to chorus really makes the latter stand out, and it hits even harder with Ringo shifting from a choppier rhythm to a straight-ahead rock beat, anchored by a steady tambourine jingle.
Baby You’re A Rich Man
This song from Magical Mystery Tour is another true Lennon/McCartney collab, and you can really hear two distinct but complimentary musical styles at play. Originally, Lennon’s verse and McCartney’s chorus where two separate songs, but The Beatles fused them together, creating something far superior than the original parts.
I’m So Tired
Having pulled countless all-nighters on Paste deadlines over the last five years—and having developed sleep apnea and, increasingly, insomnia during the last two—I can certainly relate to the feeling of sheer exhaustion in this sleep-starved smoke-dream of a Lennon tune. The song crawls along, Ringo’s heavy-lidded snare cracking into that elusive, mesmerizing semi-conscious space between wake and slumber, expanding and contracting like a weary pair of lungs, while Lennon croons hypnotically, lost in a trance. Along with “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” (also on the White Album), this is one of Lennon’s finest vocal performances.
Baby’s In Black
The most morose of early Beatles song, this Lennon/McCartney song (from Beatles For Sale/Beatles ‘65) is fabled to be about the mourning Astrid Kirchner, fiancée of original Beatles bassist Stu Sutcliffe (who died of a brain hemorrhage while in art class in Hamburg, Germany, in 1962). “Baby’s in Black” feels almost more like early Stones than The Beatles—all it’s missing is Mick Jagger’s voice and Brian Jones accenting it with some weird instrument.
The lead track on both Beatles for Sale and Beatles ’65, “No Reply” is typical of Lennon’s more introspective, depressed writing during this period. A true brokenhearted sad-bastard mini masterpiece with a killer bridge and some goose-bump-inducing harmonies.
I Need You
The Second George Harrison tune The Beatles recorded (following “Don’t Bother Me” from With the Beatles/Meet The Beatles!), “I Need You” features some gorgeous background vocals from Lennon and McCartney, as well as Harrison’s ringing Rickenbacker licks (eased in for the first time with a volume pedal), adding to the song’s wide-open feel—perhaps why the band performed it outdoors in a huge field for the film Help!.
I’m Looking Through You
Yet another McCartney tune about actress/future fiancée Jane Asher (this time about his disillusion with their relationship: “Why, tell me why did you not treat me right / Love has a nasty habit of disappearing overnight”), “I’m Looking Through You” appears on The Beatles’ Rubber Soul album.
I’ll Be Back
This acoustic-anchored John Lennon tune appears on the soundtrack to A Hard Day’s Night, but it sounds like it’d be right at home on the Fab 4’s folkier Beatles For Sale/Beatles ’65 albums, which came out just after Hard Day’s Night. The minor-key verse and haunting guitar strumming—contrasted by the hopeful turn of the bridges—perfectly fits the rocky relationship described in the lyrics. It’s a new year, so why not a song about second chances—even if it’s a longshot.
I’ll Get You
The B-side of “She Loves You,” this Lennon song is the perfect mix of sweetness and swagger; the sweetness embodied by the verse lyrics and the song’s sugary harmonies, and the swagger by Ringo’s thumping beat and Lennon’s just-shy-of-cocky chorus hook.
The Night Before
One of my favorite early McCartney tunes, even this song’s verse is catchy enough to be a chorus. The bridge is a welcome surprise, and Lennon and Harrison’s harmonies are magical. Below is a clip of the song from the film Help! As you can see, no one looks happier than The Beatles while playing music. Well, maybe Gwar.
What Goes On
John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote this song—the B-side to “Nowhere Man”—for Ringo, who takes the lead vocal here. The lazy rocker nicely fits the Beatles drummer’s laidback personality and playing style. And there’s an interesting contrast between the light, sunshine-y chorus and the heartbroken, pleading lyrics.
The Inner Light
One of George Harrison’s raga-inspired tunes, the music for “The Inner Light” was recorded while Harrison was in India in 1968 recording the soundtrack album Wonderwall Music. It was the B-side to “Lady Madonna” single, and features master musicians playing Eastern instruments like the shenai, the sarod, the tabla and pakhavaj, as well as flute and harmonium. After Harrison returned from his journey with the track’s foundation, he, John and Paul laid the vocals on top. Ringo does not play on the song.
Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?
One might expect this kind of naughtiness from John Lennon, but from the future Sir Paul McCartney? An ode to copulating in the middle of a public thoroughfare? I don’t believe it. Of course, McCartney never explicitly states what the “it” he and whomever will be doing is, but it was 1968—just one short year after the Summer of Love—and nobody was watching them. You do the math.
I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party
Beautiful self-loathing country-tinged sad-bastard music at its best, this Lennon tune from Beatles for Sale could’ve been written by Buck Owens himself.
You’re Gonna Lose That Girl
John Lennon sings this number from the Help! movie as a warning to an anonymous, unappreciative friend who’s taking a really great girl for granted. My guess is that the guy doesn’t listen to John’s advice, and ends up a sad bastard like the protagonist of the previous song on the list, “I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party.” Be sure to note George Harrison’s amazingly cool guitar solo, which draws some serious magic from gorgeous chord changes underneath it. And, for a bonus, Ringo—all super beatnik cool smokin’ cigs and playing his laidback beat through the whole thing—gets kidnapped at the end of the song.
Tomorrow Never Knows
It’s pretty amazing to hear the profound contrast between this list’s innocently poppy previous tune and this one. While recorded only a year apart, they seem separated by eons, sonically. I don’t remember the exact quote, but “Tomorrow Never Knows” prompted a former Beatles fan—shocked and bewildered by the bizarre sounds of the challenging new Revolver album—to walk up to longhaired Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh in a San Fransisco record store in 1966 and yell something to the effect of, “You freaks! What the hell have you done to The Beatles?!” Hastened along by their mid-’60s LSD experiences, John, Paul, George and Ringo began experimenting much more heavily in the studio at this point. The odd time signature of “Tomorrow Never Knows” and its hitching drum beat make for what’s probably Ringo’s finest moment behind the kit. On top of that epic beat, you can hear manipulated loops of seagull noise, a distorted recording of McCartney laughing, and orchestra playing a B-flat chord, a distorted sitar and two Mellotrons—one set to flute, the other to violin. Lennon’s lyrics were heavily influenced by the Timothy Leary book he was reading at the time, The Psychedelic Experience. He told producer George Martin that he wanted the vocal to sound like “the Dalai Lama chanting from a hilltop.” To achieve this, 19-year-old engineer Geoff Emerick ran Lennon’s voice through a rotating Leslie speaker normally used with Hammond organs. Which ended up being spot on.
You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)
A hilarious, experimental Lennon/McCartney-penned tour of rock, soul, doo-wop, lounge, music hall and 8 suddenly very important words, this song was recorded over five sessions (four in 1967, and one in 1969). Apparently, Lennon got the idea for the title from a slogan on a phonebook sitting on a piano at McCartney’s house. The song was originally released as the B-Side to 1970 single “Let It Be.” McCartney has said it’s probably his favorite Beatles track. “It’s so insane,” he’s quoted in Mark Lewisohn’s 1988 book The Beatles: Recording Sessions. “All the memories … I mean, what would you do if a guy like John Lennon turned up at the studio and said, ‘I’ve got a new song.’ I said, ‘What’s the words?’ and he replied ‘You know my name, look up the number.’ I asked, ‘What’s the rest of it?’ ‘No, no other words, those are the words. And I want to do it like a mantra!” To top it all off, Rolling Stone Brian Jones plays saxophone on this one. Awesome.
Two of Us
Even though McCartney has claimed this song was written for his soon-to-be-wife Linda Eastman, I think it’s really McCartney’s love letter to John Lennon. Even though their friendship was strained at this point, all that they shared in their strange journey—from being schoolyard mates to playing seedy clubs in Hamburg to becoming the biggest band in the history of recorded music—is touchingly summed up by this song, one of the last they ever cut together.