Our Favourite Beatles Songs
The Writers' Roundtable is an open-ended discussion forum in which a question or idea is posed, to be discussed at length by our team of contributors.
It's been 50 years since The Beatles embarked on their first and only Australian tour. To celebrate, we asked our contributors to answer a simple but agonisingly difficult question: what is your favourite Beatles song, and why?
- Ash Beks: “Strawberry Fields Forever”
- Luke Lewis: “Norwegian Wood”
- Richard S. He: “Across the Universe”
- Simon Di Berardino: “A Day in the Life”
- Anthony Kellaris: “Here, There and Everywhere”
- Bradley J. Dixon: “Here Comes the Sun”
Ash Beks: “Strawberry Fields Forever”
Music and memory intertwine constantly. We hear a song and place ourselves in that memory: eyes closed on the bed with headphones; sticky-floored live venue; first kiss; a film. “Strawberry Fields Forever” is a song all about memories, specifically those from our youth. For John Lennon, Strawberry Field is a physical place; an old hangout not far from his Aunt’s and a stone’s throw from Penny Lane. For me, Strawberry Field is a metaphor for youth and a conjurer of vivid, colourful memories.
I was relatively late catching Beatlemana, but when I did, I caught it bad. Of course, throughout my life I had heard The Beatles’ music (it is impossible for an artistic, musically aware teenager not to) but I had never invested myself fully in their music. Around age 17, I was introduced to “Strawberry Fields Forever” and became officially hooked on The Beatles. Within months I had heard all of their albums, owned countless items of merchandise and had begun establishing favourite albums, songs and band members.
As I begun deconstructing the songs of The Beatles, my love for “Strawberry Fields Forever” only grew. Countless academic articles are written on the complexities of this track, both from a technical and song writing perspective. Mastermind producer and unofficial fifth Beatle George Martin went to great lengths to adhere to John Lennon’s specific yet vague descriptions of how he wanted the song to sound. Comprised of exquisite melodies, outrageous instrumentation, ranging dynamic and an odd, almost circular structure (complete with a tacked-on outro); “Strawberry Fields Forever” is without question The Beatles’ most complex and fascinating track.
Musical complexities aside, the song boasts an emotional fervour which John Lennon had been expertly portraying since first tuning-in in mid-1965. The yearning for this place, this memory, can be heard even in the brilliant early demo of the track and his delivery on “no one I think is in my tree” says it all. It is obvious that John Lennon cares for this memory and holds it with high regard; you can hear it in his voice.
However, John Lennon’s memory of Strawberry Field isn’t all sunshine and happiness. Juxtaposing Lennon’s longing for youthful free-spiritedness is an uncertainty of identity and a denunciation of institutional thinking. Now seeing himself and his memories through the reflective lenses of age, LSD, popularity and self-doubt, Lennon feels wholly alone and feigns nonchalance to the world around him.
Admittedly my experiences of adulthood haven’t been as radical or massive as John Lennon’s, but I can certainly rationalise his thinking. Most 20-somethings can resonate with the line "it’s getting hard to be someone." We understand that finding a place in this complicated existence is certainly no easy task. And besides, do we actually even need a place? As Lennon says, "it doesn’t matter much to me."
But “Strawberry Fields Forever” matters a hell of a lot to me. The song holds a place in my heart unmatched by any other. Boundless in its emotional weight, the song offers a poignant exploration of oneself and a nostalgic resonation of childhood. Musically kaleidoscopic, technically jaw-dropping, emotionally overwhelming and intellectually intriguing: Strawberry Fields Forever is a monumental landmark.
Luke Lewis: “Norwegian Wood”
With its sharp lyrics, sitar, strong yet natural melody and that duel Lennon/McCartney harmony, “Norwegian Wood” would be my favourite Beatles song, as arbitrary as that is to decide. The lyrical content is genius, especially as far as a folk-pop song is concerned; with its constant parody of cheap, student style apartments, and Lennon’s frustration with his hook-up; told to sit anywhere he notices there isn’t a chair, so sits on the rug; talking until 2 a.m. in anticipation of sex, only to sleep alone in her bathtub because she has work in the morning. Then that final turn around of the opening verse, the reference to Norwegian wood, goes from “She showed me her room / Isn’t it good? / Norwegian wood”, to, “So, I lit a fire / Isn’t it good? / Norwegian wood”. It really is pop song genius.
The Beatles had a tendency to parody other genres, “Norwegian Wood” being their version of the folk revival that was huge at the time. In fact “Norwegian Wood” was written to sound like a Bob Dylan song, and was pulled off so well Dylan sort of lifted it/ripped it/answered it with “Fourth Time Around”. You’ll notice it in the melody immediately. However you look at it, there’s something smoother and slicker about “Norwegian Wood”, from the natural way the actually quite strict melody walks around the odd chord progression, to the instrumentation; it’s considered the first rock song to feature a sitar, a feature which I think fills out and adds depth and intrigue to what could have been a standard folk song.
“Norwegian Wood” is an important watermark in the Beatles career; it’s the epitome of their folk phase; the introduction of the sitar; an amazing crystallisation of the songwriting prowess of Lennon/McCartney, when they still wrote nearly everything together; and it’s a fantastic song to boot.
Richard S. He: “Across the Universe”
I probably won’t ever know what my favourite Beatles song is, but “Across the Universe” is one of the very best, and not necessarily for the reasons you might think. None of the many covers approach the greatness of John Lennon’s take on Let It Be, simply because no one else is twisted enough to embrace the heroin-like psychedelia of it all. What came first: the drugs, or the spiritual reverie?
Between Paul McCartney’s “Let It Be” and Lennon’s “Mother”, the maternal was on both Beatles’ minds in 1970. “Across the Universe” is one of Lennon’s most vulnerable, childlike vocals. “Nothing’s gonna change my world" — is he longing for spiritual rebirth, or the womb, or both? But Phil Spector’s production slows Lennon and his guitar to a dull thud, to the point where he sounds completely removed from the heavenly choir on his own song. It’s so overwhelmingly beautiful, yet so untouchably distant, that it’s almost sinister. There’s just the slightest hint of death, as if there’s a party in heaven, and all you have to do is head towards the light. Put together enough dull needles and they might start to look like stars. Or in Lennon’s words, “a million suns”.
Like much great psychedelic music, “Across the Universe” is sacred and profane, the perfect example of how the Beatles smuggled the counterculture into even their most uplifting work. Just as total spiritual harmony isn’t that far removed from junkie poetry, the other most influential band of the 60s is only a drone away.
Simon Di Berardino: “A Day in the Life”
Always pointed to as the ultimate Lennon/McCartney balancing act, “A Day in the Life” is almost the quintessential Beatles track. Coming immediately after the outro of Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, “A Day in the Life” exists in its own space of that vibrant universe, a track of elaborate harmony and synchronisation whose position becomes almost mythic in context.
The song fades into your consciousness like a slow burning memory with its acoustic guitar strums and drowsy piano chords, eventually pulling back the curtain on one of the band’s most infamous lyrics “I read the news today, oh boy”. Although the track is democratically split down the middle for the Lennon/McCartney collaboration, Lennon’s moment comes first with his lyrics being cryptically laced with current events and symbolic navel gazing. Within that, Lennon makes sure to round out his verses with a sly Timothy Leary reference in the lyric “I’d love to turn you on”, allowing it to calmly warble along with George Martin’s illustrious string section.
The distinction between Lennon’s socio-political activism and McCartney’s fancy free and youthful charm has never been so clear as in “A Day in the Life”, and after a somewhat cacophonous orchestral transformation, the track weaves into McCartney’s dreamy jig about a British worker who during his morning commute slips into a dream. After a somewhat violent brass interruption we return to Lennon’s newspaper motif, but it’s now conjoined with McCartney’s previous melodic moment, a splendid synchronisation of musical minds that culminates with possibly the band’s most triumphant ending; a series of three piano chords played on three separate pianos that ring out for what seems an eternity. That is until the inane, never ending loop, which literally can run out for an eternity.
As much as Lennon and McCartney bickered after The Beatles’ inevitable split, it’s songs like “A Day in the Life” that illustrate just how intensely harmonious this collaboration was. With all of its cultural references, musical distractions and performatitive quirks, “A Day in the Life” is as vibrant and timeless as the album’s sleeve, a song of mythic proportions that will never grow old. At the end of the day though, it’s simply recorded evidence that these two men constituted one of the most influential and effortless musical partnerships in the history of pop culture.
Anthony Kellaris: “Here, There and Everywhere”
To make sense of a question like this you’ve either got to break it down into pieces or go mad trying to find an answer. I found peace in first choosing my favourite ‘type’ of Beatles song, the love song, and working my way up from there. The Beatles’ complete mastery of the love song was attained through the understanding that there are many types of love, from good to bad and everything in between. A case can be made for Rubber Soul, the first “mature” Beatles record, being an album devoted almost entirely to “bad” love songs. Their two greatest love songs1 would appear on the same record but come from opposite sides of the good love/bad love divide — “Here, There and Everywhere” and “For No One”, written by Paul McCartney for 1966’s Revolver.
That McCartney released both his most beautiful and most devastating love songs on the same record is a colossal achievement, but it’s also a calculated one. On “Here, There and Everywhere” he captures the apex of a relationship, that moment in which the mere presence of the one you love is your entire world. Love as a concept is tricky, something both universal and undefinable (The Beatles themselves explore this in Rubber Soul’s “The Word”), but McCartney comes closer than anyone to pinning it down in those two and a half minutes. Your heart swells, then five tracks later it all comes crashing down with “For No One”, a (the?) breakup song detailing the dying moments of a “love that should have lasted years”. It’s truly heartbreaking, both equal and opposite to “Here, There and Everywhere”; their mirrored placement in the tracklisting is intentional, with McCartney asking the listener to make the choice for themselves. For me, it’s always gonna be the good one.
1. For argument’s sake I’m placing ”Something” in a very close third.
Bradley J. Dixon: “Here Comes the Sun”
“Here Comes the Sun”, the first track on side two of Abbey Road, is the perfect pop song.
Truly, if you were to write a guide on how to compose the perfect pop song, you would describe “Here Comes the Sun”: start with a simple but memorable guitar line, layer in an unobtrusive drum beat, a lively, upbeat bass line, and you absolutely must have a catchy, singable refrain and heavenly vocal harmonies. The key would be to remove all extraneous elements and keep things subtle; simple is beautiful after all.
It’s easy to overlook in the middle of an an album stuffed to the gills with orchestral bravado and compositional experimentation, but as written by George Harrison when being a member of The Beatles was anything but simple, you can feel relief pervading every last note. Lyrically — as glib as this sounds for a song whose chorus literally contains the words “do do do do” — it’s among my absolute favourites. Defiantly optimistic, the song is a metaphorical ray of sunshine emerging from The Beatles’ darkest days, an exuberant affirmation that all winters end and things will always get better.
Though it is compositionally very basic, there are a couple of surprises deep down in the mix that reward studious attention: I don’t know enough about music theory or audio production to understand why, but Ringo’s snare hit on every second beat is one of the most pleasurable sounds I’ve ever experienced. Honestly, listen to “Here Comes the Sun” loudly with headphones and tell me it’s not the most comforting thing you’ve ever heard short of a mother’s voice.
And then marvel at the most understated use of a Moog synthesiser — before it was repurposed for evil by progressive rock — you’ll ever hear.
“Here Comes the Sun” is a truly beautiful moment born out of a very complicated situation, and one of humankind’s crowning artistic achievements. Simply, it’s why music exists.