The Beatles’ Singles: 22 Songs That Changed The World
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As we look back on the Beatles' career, it's only natural that we follow their progression through the seminal albums they made between 1963 and 1969. But that only tells part of the story. The Beatles may have helped shift focus from singles to full-length albums, but early in their career they were primarily a band that produced phenomenal singles, many of which didn't actually appear on their albums. Since pop music was still primarily a singles market in the mid-'60s, the Beatles' singles offer something of a parallel discography: a different lens through which to trace their artistic career.
1962: "Love Me, Do"
The group had actually recorded a single even before signing to Parlophone. John, Paul, George and Pete Best, known as The Beat Brothers, backed English singer Tony Sheridan on a rocking version of "My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean" which was released on Polydor in West Germany. It was a client request for this recording that led to Liverpool record shop owner Brian Epstein locating and eventually managing The Beatles.
After Brian secured them a brief deal with George Martin's Parlophone Records, a subsidiary of EMI, the producer began evaluating which songs they should include on their first single. "I picked up 'Love Me Do' mostly for the harmonica sound," Martin later recalled. And so it was that the first Beatles single "Love Me Do"/"PS I Love You" was released in the UK on 5th October 1962 and entered the UK Singles Chart. After a few weeks of ascending, then descending, then up and down again, it finally peaked at number 17 in the last week of 1962. They were off and running.
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1963: Please Please Me, From Me To You, She Loves You, I Want To Hold Your Hand
For the follow-up, Martin decided to play it safe and get the boys to record a song he knew would be a hit — "How Do You Do It?" by songwriter Mitch Murray. The only catch was that the Beatles didn't like it. But being good Beatles, they took the song home and rehearsed it before returning to EMI Studios to try it out. Not unsympathetic to their renewed protests, Martin asked them what they themselves had to keep up. It was then that they played him "Please Please Me," a song John had composed in the summer of 1962 at his Aunt Mimi's Liverpool home. Originally a slow-rocker in the vein of Roy Orbison's "Only The Lonely," On Martin's advice, they sped up the song and set to work recording it. "They played me 'Please Please Me,' but it was very slow and pretty dull," Martin recalled. "I told them if they doubled the speed it might get interesting."
The single was recorded on November 26, 1962 and towards the end of the session Martin said to the boys, "You just made your first No. 1." "Please Please Me"/"Ask Me Why", which was released on January 11, 1963 was released, topped both the NME and Melody Maker charts but stalled at number 2 on the Record Retailer chart - the one that later became the official UK listing.
"Please Please Me" was the first of four amazing singles released by the group in 1963 and the next three all topped the UK Singles Chart. First up was From Me To You, which John and Paul wrote while touring the UK with Helen Shapiro. By now the band was on the road almost non-stop, driving around Britain in their cramped van, often playing two or more shows a day and taping TV and radio appearances. Living out of suitcases, John and Paul had no choice but to write along the way.
For their fourth Parlophone single, Paul McCartney recalled a songwriting session in her Newcastle hotel room: "We must have had a few hours before the show, so we said, 'Oh great! Let's have a cigarette and write a song!'” “She Loves You” broke all records and became the best-selling single of the 1960s in Britain; his catchy "Yeah! Yes! Yes!" chorus became a universal chorus. In just a few short months, the Beatles had gone from provincial upstarts to national treasures – although not everyone loved the song. Paul recalled them completing it at his family's home on Forthlin Road, Liverpool before proudly taking it into the living room to play for his father." He said, 'That's very nice, son, but there's enough of those Americanisms. Couldn't you sing 'She Loves You'? Yes! Yes! Yes!'?"
Meanwhile, George Martin was growing increasingly frustrated with EMI's Capitol Records in the US, which adamantly refused to release The Beatles' singles in the US. But her next offer proved too tempting even for Capitol. It seemed like there was no doubt by now that "I Want To Hold Your Hand" would become another No. 1 - the Beatles' fourth of the year, depending on which charts you read. But 'I Want To Hold Your Hand' was more than just another sonic bang for Liverpool's finest, it was the single that blew them across the Atlantic - and then across the globe.
1964: "Can't Buy Me Love", "A Hard Day's Night", "I Feel Fine"
The Beatles started 1964 in fine form. While 12 months earlier they had been struggling to get a Lennon/McCartney composition released as an A-side, in 1964 they were seemingly writing hits to order. After their tumultuous first visit to the US was perhaps the greatest success in show business history, the group returned to the UK to begin work on their first feature film for United Artists. The first single from the film was "Can't Buy Me Love", written by Paul at the Olympia Theater in Paris and recorded at the city's Pathé Marconi Studios. It is the only Beatles single recorded outside of London.
With a number of working titles, the work-in-progress film finally found its identity when John wrote "A Hard Day's Night," a song based on a comment by Ringo. "I was driving home and Dick Lester suggested the title from something Ringo had said," John later explained. "I had used it in In His Own Write, but it was an offhand remark by Ringo, one of those rude things - a ringoism - that's supposed to be not funny, just said. So Dick Lester said, 'We're going to use that title,' and the next morning I brought the song in." "A Hard Day's Night" was their next release. Needless to say, both of the film's singles topped the charts.
However, the idea of removing their singles from albums went against the Beatles' belief that doing so was unfairly exploiting their fans. Aside from their two movie soundtracks, where the singles and album were part of the deal, the Beatles preferred their singles to be standalone cuts. And so it was with their last single from 1964.
"I Feel Fine" is notable for being the first Beatles single to feature the kind of sonic innovation that would become their trademark in years to come as they spent more time fiddling with sounds in the studio . The single begins with a burst of feedback—perhaps the first conscious use of feedback on a pop single. As George Harrison explained in Anthology, "John unintentionally got a bit of feedback and liked the sound and thought it would be good at the beginning of the song. From there he started holding the guitar to create the feedback for each take recorded.”
1965: "Ticket to Ride", "Help!", "We Can Work It Out"/"Day Tripper"
Similar to the previous year, the Beatles started out as actors in 1965. The shooting of her second film Help! started in February in the Bahamas. Although the film was not released until the summer, the first single from the accompanying soundtrack was released in April 1965, and with it a new period of Beatles singles was born.
"Ticket To Ride" was in many ways an artistic step up from their output of just a few months earlier. As Ian MacDonald put it in his book Revolution In The Head, "As a sheer sound, 'Ticket To Ride' is exceptional for its time - massive with ringing electric guitars, heavy rhythm and thumping floor toms." John Lennon described it as " one of the earliest heavy metal records".
With the film came the soundtrack album and theme song. But while the film was a wacky comedy, with the Beatles whizzing around the world to increasingly exotic locations (for no real reason other than that the four of them loved going there), the title track hid the growing pressure of being a Beatle from plain sight - especially about John Lennon: "I didn't realize it at the time - I only wrote the song because I was commissioned to write it for the film - but later I knew I was really screaming for help. 'Help!' was about me.”
Its B-side, the Little Richard-inspired "I'm Down," was the last time the group looked back on a single until they consciously did so in 1969. From here, whatever they came out with would signal further progress. starting with their first double-sided single, the remarkable "We Can Work It Out"/"Day Tripper".
Paul had written "We Can Work It Out" as "a snappier thing, country and western." But the band all contributed to its development, with John helping with the middle eight of "Life is very short" (John: "Paul writes 'We can work it out', very optimistically; and I, impatiently: 'Life is very short and there is no time for excitement…'”), and George suggests the section in waltz time.
On John's "Day Tripper," Paul's driving bass guitar underpins a great R&B track, with his simple rhythmic playing on the middle eight serving to drive this passage to a frenzied climax. The combination of the two gave the group their third No. 1 hit of a year, which also included two albums, a full-color film, a US tour that included a record-breaking concert at New York's Shea Stadium, and the MBE award from the Queen.
1966: "Paperback Writer," "Eleanor Rigby"
By comparison, 1966 appears, on the surface, to be a quieter year. Just the one new album, Revolver, no films and just two singles - one of which, unusually, was lifted from an album. However, where they have reduced quantity, they have taken quality to previously unimagined levels.
The Beatles' first single of the year, who spent much of April through June at EMI recording their revolutionary new album, was breathtaking, both in its vitality and innovation. The A-side, "Paperback Writer," was a song Paul had started driving to John's home in Surrey. “Because I had a long commute, I would often start thinking and writing on the way out, developing the whole idea in the car. I walked in with my bowl of cereal and said, "How about we write a letter: 'Dear Sir or Madam,' next line, next paragraph, etc." I wrote it all down and John said, "Yes, that's good.” It just flowed.”
"Paperback Writer" featured layers of harmony vocals and a piercing electric guitar from George. On the other hand, John's 'Rain' was the first Beatles album to use backwards music and also featured a brilliant rhythm section in the form of Ringo's drums and Paul's bass. The single, released on June 10, 1966, was the soundtrack to a sweltering British summer, when the English football team won the World Cup at Wembley Stadium, and the streets of London were teeming with hip youngsters while London's Carnaby Street and the King's Road boutiques outfitted the fashionistas with the latest in fabulous gear.
For the Beatles, however, that summer was a very different scene when they were controversial on their world tour. They first landed in Japan, where locals protested their performance at Tokyo's Budokan, a venue previously only used for sacred traditional martial arts. Things boiled over in the Philippines as a perceived snub from President Marcos and his wife saw they were delighted to escape the country with their lives. And after John Lennon's comments about the Beatles becoming more popular than Jesus Christ, their tour of the United States was marred by renewed protests against his alleged blasphemy.
The band returned to England on August 31st, determined never to tour again, and promptly all took a few well-deserved months off.
With demand for a Christmas single and the new album growing but no new product in sight, Brian Epstein and George Martin made the decision to release the Revolver album and a two-track single - "Eleanor Rigby" and - on the same day "Yellow Submarine" - apart from that, although the group is reluctant to let fans pay twice for the same song. That Christmas saw the release of A Collection Of Beatles Oldies (But Goldies!), a compilation of singles, b-sides and album cuts. Had the Beatles finally run out of ideas?
1967: "Strawberry Fields Forever"/"Penny Lane", "All You Need Is Love", "Hello, Goodbye"
In December 1966 they regrouped at EMI to begin work on their next project. One of the first ideas was to make a concept album about their childhood and the first songs they recorded reflected that. It started with "Strawberry Fields Forever". John had started writing the song during breaks in filming How I Won The War in Almeria, Spain. The title was a reference to Strawberry Field, a Salvation Army children's home near John's childhood home with his Aunt Mimi in the leafy Liverpool suburb of Woolton, where John played growing up and which became an escape as a teenager.
Two versions of the song were recorded, one orchestrated by George Martin, the other a heavier and faster version featuring the full band. Unable to decide between the two, John asked Martin to create a third version by splicing the two together. This "cut-and-shut" was equally fortunate, as the two versions were at different pitches and speeds. Coincidentally, the slowdown matched the pitches perfectly.
Paul's foil for this was Penny Lane, written about a part of Liverpool that he would pass through on his way to the city centre. The song perfectly evokes life under the blue suburban sky, with the fireman, barber and "Four of Fish and Finger Cakes" behind the bus stop in the middle of the roundabout. Paul layered pianos and created a bright piece of pop on which he wanted to overlay an "enormously high trumpet" he had heard on TV. George Martin hired the same player, David Mason, to play a piccolo trumpet part that would push even what might be the best trumpet player in the country.
With recording now taking so much longer and the group apparently in no hurry to deliver a finished album, demand for new Beatles products became so great that Epstein and Martin decided to produce Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane ' to be released as a double CD. A-side in February 1967. Still regarded by many critics as one of the best 7 inch singles ever released, it seems impossible today to believe that this was the Beatles' first single since 'Love Me Do' which didn't top the charts. held off the top spot by Englebert Humperdinck's "Release Me". The Beatles were philosophical about this, however, as Paul remarked: "It's okay if a record like 'Release Me' keeps you from being No. 1 because you're not trying to do the same. It's a whole different scene."
With their attention now firmly on the completion of Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, it looked like the group would shift their focus from the singles market to albums. And yet, no sooner had they finished Sgt Pepper than they were back in the studio working on another hit single, written to order.
Brian Epstein was asked to invite The Beatles to represent Britain on Our World, the world's first international live satellite television show. John wrote All You Need Is Love for the occasion. As George Harrison explained in Anthology, "Because of the mood of the time, it seemed like a great idea to perform this song while everyone else was showing knitting in Canada or Irish clog dancing in Venezuela."
"All You Need Is Love" became the anthem for what would go down in history as "Summer Of Love" and the single was preceded by a tasty tune called "Baby, You're A Rich Man" with the flower power Chorus underlaid. "How does it feel to be one of the beautiful people?"
But the group wasn't done for the year. Following the accidental death of manager Brian Epstein in August, they embarked on their latest project, a home-made TV movie called Magical Mystery Tour. While most people these days consider the Magical Mystery Tour album part of the Beatles' catalogue, it was originally only released as an album in the US; in the UK it was released as a beautifully packaged gatefold double EP. But before that came "Hello, Goodbye"/"I Am The Walrus" - another #1 hit that contained one of the greatest B-sides in history, as Lennon's Lewis Carroll-inspired masterpiece featured all sorts of psychedelic sound effects, Random Radio Noise , reverse music and surreal lyrics. His ideas, it seemed, just wouldn't stop flowing.
1968: Lady Madonna, Hey Jude
For John, Paul, George and Ringo, 1968 was dominated by two major events. First, starting in mid-February, the four bandmates, wives and girlfriends, and other friends traveled to Rishikesh, India to study Transcendental Meditation with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Although Ringo and then Paul left within about a month, John and George stayed at the Maharishi's Ashram until mid-April.
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