Friday, January 30, 2009

The Best of the Beatles

For nearly 30 years, I have regarded the murder of John Lennon as the most traumatic event of my college years.

I've loved the Beatles since I was a child. I can remember — vaguely, because I wasn't in school yet — when they came to America and the radio stations of the time were constantly playing "She Loves You" and "I Wanna Hold Your Hand."

A lot of people probably wouldn't look at it that way. When many people think of 1980, they remember the economic woes the country experienced at that time. I was in college, not looking for a job — although I would be looking for one less than two years later — and my attention wasn't on gas lines or unemployment lines.

After Lennon was killed, one of the radio stations in Fayetteville, Ark., the city where I went to college, played nothing but Beatles music in a tribute to the murdered minstrel. The same station, as I recall, was the first to pass along the information to its local listeners that Lennon's widow, Yoko Ono, had asked everyone to observe 10 minutes of silence the following Sunday in a tribute to her slain husband.

And, the following summer, I think it was the same radio station that did a special weekend-long tribute to the Beatles that was called "The Beatles From A to Z." During that tribute — which may have originated elsewhere and been distributed to stations across the country — Beatles songs were played in alphabetical order.

I remember listening to it and taping as much as I could, although there were obvious problems with creating the alphabetized broadcast. For example, the Beatles recorded some songs that were really medleys that combined several songs. How and where would one split them up so they could be represented as individual songs?

Such a medley appeared on the "Abbey Road" album, but it would require a meticulous job of editing to make sure that notes from the previous or subsequent songs did not bleed into the one in the spotlight. As I recall, the editors were not that meticulous.

Also, how would one alphabetize the titles in the way things are normally alphabetized? For example, the Beatles recorded a song on their "Abbey Road" album that was called "The End." Typically, a title that begins with an article, like the or a (another Beatles song was titled "A Day in the Life"), is alphabetized according to the next word in the title so the usual procedure would require that "The End" would be grouped in the "E's," not the "T's."

But the word "the" seems to be such an important part of that title that grouping the song with the "E's" seems to be an almost slavish devotion to academic procedure. And that seems contradictory to the spirit of the Beatles.

Nevertheless, as I say, I recorded as much of that program as I could, and I listened to those tapes for years — until they finally went the way of all things.

The concept of "The Beatles From A to Z" appealed to me. It implied a complete knowledge of the Beatles' repertoire. But, if I could go back and listen to those tapes again, I might be inclined to think they were incomplete — because they did not include two songs that were released in the 1990s as Beatles songs, "Free as a Bird" and "Real Love."

Technically, I suppose, they wouldn't count as Beatles songs. They began as recordings that Lennon made by himself. Then, more than a decade after Lennon's death, the surviving Beatles, with Ono's blessing, added their vocal and instrumental contributions to the songs and released them on the first two volumes of the Beatles' "Anthology" CDs.

Both songs were big hits, but, although they featured all four Beatles, they probably wouldn't qualify as original Beatles music.

Anyway, this has served as a rather lengthy introduction to JamsBio Magazine's "Playing the Beatles Backwards" list of Beatles songs.

In what was probably inspired by the persistent stories of what could be heard when one played Beatles records backwards, the magazine put together a comprehensive list of Beatles songs, listing them in reverse order — from worst to best.

Such a list is bound to provoke debates among avid Beatles fans, although I'm inclined to agree with a comment left by one reader: "[I]f you're a true Beatles fan, none of their songs could be placed in any best/worst order, as they all have merit to a degree."

I guess the only things I would say about the list are as follows:
  • I agree that "Revolution 9" should be regarded as the worst recording by the Beatles. I'm not sure if it qualifies as music, since it is really a collage of unrelated sounds, compiled primarily by Lennon. At 8:22 in length, it is, I believe, the longest Beatles recording — more than a minute longer than "Hey Jude," which was one of the Beatles' biggest hits.

    It also was one of the songs from the Beatles' "White Album" that Charles Manson saw as a reference to the apocalypse. He interpreted "Revolution 9" as encouraging a racial war between white and black that would lead to the end of days that was foretold in the Book of Revelation.

    But all Manson's interpretation encouraged was a killing spree.

  • Likewise, I agree that the song that is listed as the best Beatles song — "A Day in the Life" — deserves to be near the top of the list. But was it the best song the Beatles ever recorded? That, I suppose, depends on one's individual taste.

    Personally, I have always liked "Across the Universe" and would consider it a strong contender for #1 (it comes in 37th on this list). Also, I've always loved the song "Norwegian Wood," which I remember hearing when it was first released (that song is listed at #56). I don't know if it's the best they ever did, but it deserves to be ranked higher.

  • I'll give JamsBio credit for getting "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" about right. Out of 185 songs, the magazine ranks that song just about in the middle, at #90. I really loathe that particular piece of fluff, though, and might have put it closer to "Revolution 9" if given the chance. I certainly would have put "Yer Blues," which occupies the 182nd slot, ahead of it.

    "Yer Blues," incidentally, is ranked right behind "Good Day Sunshine," a Paul McCartney tune that JamsBio rightfully dismisses as "happiness overload."

    "Many Beatles songs evoke joy; this one shoves joy down your gullet until you beg for mercy," the author, "JBev," points out, although JBev concedes that "I suppose there might come a day when I win the lottery, or the Vikings win the Super Bowl, or that annoying co-worker falls down the steps, when I'll step out into the radiant afternoon and belt out 'Good Day Sunshine' at the top of my lungs.

    "Nah, it'll still be annoying."
Similar comments are provided for each song, making JamsBio's list an entertaining read, whether you're a Beatles fan or not.

And, by the way, "Free as a Bird" and "Real Love" didn't make the list. If it wasn't a product of the actual "Beatlemania" period, I guess it wasn't considered genuine.

That's another matter that is open to debate.