Front Page Reviews & AIR
Five Most Underrated Beatles Songs
5. "Why Don't We Do It In The Road?"
According to legend, the Beatles intended “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road” as a jab at the Rolling Stones, who were then (and, arguably, are still) the epitome of capital-R Rock ‘n’ Roll. They wanted to write the dumbest rock ‘n’ roll song possible, simply to demonstrate how dumb rock ‘n’ roll is. But the thing is, rock ‘n’ roll can be dumb—and still be good. Sometimes its most blunt, boneheaded moments are those that people love the most. So the Beatles’ attempt at satire backfired: they accidentally ended up writing, in a way, a pretty great rock ‘n’ roll song. In addition to the supposed Stones’ influence, Paul has claimed that he got the idea for the song after watching two monkeys doing it in India and thinking about “how simple the act of procreation is, this bloody monkey hopping on and hopping off,” which only strengthens the case that this little gem is a far better song than it was ever meant to be.
4. "For No One"
Paul McCartney is often (and, sometimes, deservingly) derided as a mere craftsman to John Lennon’s heart-bleeding poetic genius, a tunesmith who could do nothing but string notes and chords together into clever songs and then fill them out with cloying platitudes and ersatz emotions. Every now and then, though, the occasional vacuity of Paul’s craft worked in his favor, and never (with the possible exception of “Eleanor Rigby”) more powerfully than in “For No One.” Unlike the vast majority of breakup songs, which wallow hyperbolically in the agonizing first flush of heartbreak, “For No One” is about the part that comes after, when you stop sobbing and say “Well, that’s that” and get on with your life. In a way, that lack of feeling where feeling used to be is even sadder than the pain that precedes it, and “For No One” gets at this truth like few other songs.
3. "Good Morning Good Morning"
“For No One,” great song though it may have been, was not enough to redeem Paul in John’s eyes. Although he did not make the full extent of his hatred for his former bandmate and co-writer known until Imagine’s blistering diss-track “How Do You Sleep,” “Good Morning Good Morning” tells us an awful lot already. John claimed it was inspired by a TV commercial for Corn Flakes, but many fans suspect it was meant as a dig at Revolver’s “Good Day Sunshine,” a track that is McCartneyan fluff at its peak. I have no doubt that, when he says “I’ve got nothing to say but it’s okay,” he is talking about Paul. The first two lines, which announce a death and make small talk, respectively—
Nothing to do to save his life, call his wife in
Nothing to say but what a day, how's your boy been?
—are delivered identically, as if to say that even the saddest and profoundest moments in life, like the death of a loved one, become banal chit-chat under Paul’s touch. But even those insinuations do not suffice: John's bloodlust is not sated until he buries the whole track in a deluge of absurd animal noises. It is unclear whether he meant this onslaught as a triumphal reinstatement of his cosmology of chaos or merely the sonic equivalent of smearing gobs of shit in his rival's face, but the underlying sentiment is clear enough either way.
2. "I Want You (She's So Heavy)"
Full disclosure: "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" is my personal favorite Beatles song, for reasons that are almost too personal to articulate. But for the sake of this article, I'll give it a try.
Among the Beatles' impeccably crafted, mostly upbeat, and kid-friendly catalog, there are a good handful of startlingly despairing moments: of course "Eleanor Rigby" and "A Day In The Life," but also the nihilism of "Yer Blues," the revenge fantasy of "Run For Your Life," and even the mania at the end of "Good Morning Good Morning." Each of these tunes, surely channeling the nightmarish infinite regress of bad acid trips, project a state of mind in which one bad thought poisons the world, tearing aside the curtain of appearance and revealing the tempest of chaos that threatens to swallow us all.
By that token, what makes "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" such a singularly powerful track is that it touches that same nightmarish place, but does so using only a handful of conventional instruments and minimal, almost meaningless lyrics. In other songs, the darkness is largely a function of dark lyrics coupled with overwhelming studio embellishment; but in "I Want You (She's So Heavy)," it emerges, somehow, from the music itself. And, as if in debt to the Beatles for conjuring it so masterfully, it becomes their servant. Instead of "A Day In The Life"'s formless torrent of annihilation, it shows up here as something with structure, something like a cathedral, huge and menacing yet somehow still habitable. But then, just as it comes into focus, the band turns on a dime, as if the mortal terror of the unconscious were just another trick in their bag, and suddenly we are cruising down a highway in a convertible at sunset with not a fear in the world. And then, just as we've started getting comfortable, it returns to the symphonic grandeur of the cathedral, letting it recede for over three minutes into a haze of white noise before abruptly cutting off into silence, as if to say "All these years, this foreboding place is where the music has been emanating from; be glad you do not have to live here, as we do."
I'm just gonna go ahead and say that "Rain" is the real "Tomorrow Never Knows."
Let me explain: Everyone agrees that, sometime around 1966, the Beatles underwent a massive, almost total stylistic transformation. Ask fans to name the one song in which this metamorphosis is most clearly expressed and most will (not without good reason) name Revolver's hallucinatory closer, a track so epochal that the creators of Mad Men dropped a quarter of a million dollars for the privilege of having Don Draper demonstrate his clueless insensitivity to the rising tide of late 60s counterculture by switching it off, with a paternalistic scowl, midway through. That moment was worth every penny they paid, for reasons that mirror the motivating question of this paragraph: Mad Men is about the corresponding change that came over America itself, which the Beatles both mirrored and, to an extent, helped precipitate. And no song could encapsulate the many facets of this metamorphosis more comprehensively than "Tomorrow Never Knows."
But here's the thing: Sure, "Tomorrow Never Knows," with its droning sitar and tape loops and lyrics cribbed from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, does read like a comprehensive list of what "The 60s" were supposedly all about. But, if we really want to understand just what happened to the Beatles—not just culture as a whole, but the Beatles themselves—we need to dig deeper. If all we want is an exemplar of what the Beatles had become after casting away their chrysalis, "Tomorrow Never Knows" will do just fine. But if we want to behold the actual moment of transformation, the actual moment in which the early Beatles became the late Beatles and nothing was ever the same, then we can look nowhere but "Rain," the B-side of "Paperback Writer" and the last song they released before Revolver blew them permanently into Valhalla.
Give it a listen, through a good stereo or headphones—laptop speakers won't do. Listen carefully to the second chorus and you will see what I mean: the drums (except for one almost inaudible hi-hat) cut out, and the guitar lays down fuzzy legato quarter note chords while the bass plays descending triplets. In other words, no one is carrying the beat, but somehow the beat is still going. If the Beatles (along with, by extension, every other rock 'n' roll band up until that moment) had spent their entire career walking lockstep to the beat, the second chorus of "Rain" is like watching them suddenly lift their feet off the ground and, impossibly, keep moving forward just like before, floating through the air as if nothing were amiss. This is the moment of liberation. It is the moment in which the Beatles become, once and for all, bigger than rock 'n' roll, the moment in which they reveal to all with ears to hear that the true essence of music is not the relentless percussion of the rock 'n' roll beat but rather the endless becoming, the endless blossoming, of life itself. And yet, despite all this, they are somehow still rock 'n' roll, as if, far from transcending it and leaving it behind, they had simply introduced it to a truer version of itself, from which it could never fully return.