Written today on a flight from Boston to Atlanta…
I listen to a podcast called Something About the Beatles. It's produced by a couple of guys who are extremely well-versed in all things Beatle named Richard Buskin and Robert Rodriguez. Buskin is the “John” guy, Rodriguez is the “Paul” guy. Both have written books about the Fab Four. Each takes the piss at the other regularly, and they can be almost too snarky. But it's all in good fun, and I find them to always be informative and usually entertaining (I’ll take informative over entertaining). Sometimes when I think each is completely off the mark and full of shit, I have to remember their opinions are just as valid as my own.
Their most recent podcast was a Desert Island Disc exercise about the solo years. Whereas I have done this exercise with complete albums, these two gents looked at individual songs. They went one step further and added a book they’d take with them. When I saw the subject of this particular podcast, I thought I’d compile my own list before I heard their respective lists. I didn't want them to sway me one way or the other. Whereas Buskin and Rodriguez limited themselves to three songs for each Beatle [enough to fit on a vinyl LP], I just picked what I liked best based on my own listening taste. All the songs have to fit on a single CD.
I dispensed with the usual suspects, them being Imagine, My Sweet Lord, and Maybe I’m Amazed. I’ve heard these so many times that I don’t have to hear them again - ever. Every nuance, every note is buried in my head, so there's no need to take a recording of them to a desert island. Having dispensed with these songs, here's my list.
- What Is Life - an uptempo song from George. Who would have thought? There's a nice role reversal where George is playing the fuzzy lead guitar and Eric Clapton is playing the rhythm. This also works well without the vocals (from the remastered All Things Must Pass).
- Watching the Wheels - The lyrics always grabbed me on this one. It doesn't sound forced, and is a concise explanation of his 5-year absence from the music scene. His words “I just had to let it go” say a lot about a guy who once wanted to get to “the toppermost of the poppermost”. I was 18 when Double Fantasy came out, and if you asked me then which song I would pick it would have been Woman. But I’m 54 now and perspectives change.
- Too Many People - Paul takes a subtle shot at John. To me this sounds like an angry song. That would be typical from John but not so much from Paul. I love the aggressive guitar solo at the end.
- Photograph - Ringo said it at the Concert for George, that this song has taken on new meaning since George's passing. This is just a great song with George.
- When We Was Fab - I always thought this was an homage to I Am the Walrus, which is not a bad thing. The lyric "the microscopes have magnified the tears…” to me means a complaint about Beatlemania. That’s my interpretation, anyway.
- Handle With Care - Though it sounds nothing like When We Was Fab, the lyric (to me, anyway) has a similar theme. I think back to a comment he made about Beatlemania - they gave their screams, we gave our nervous systems. This song speaks to the fragile psyche left in the wake of Beatlemania.
- Tug of War - I think this is one of Paul’s strongest songs. It starts off as an acoustic ballad, quickly switches gears to being a rocker, then settles into a big production with a superb orchestral arrangement by George Martin.
- It Don't Come Easy - Buskin and Rodriguez might think this song is a “usual suspect” and they're probably right. I was 8 when this one came out. I was too young to know the Beatles had broken up, and too young to know what that meant. When I first heard it on the radio I thought this was a Beatles song. Was that because of Ringo’s singing or George's guitar playing? The answer is “yes”.
- I Found Out - angry John. It has angry lyrics with angry music from my favorite Lennon album. The line that always gets me is “I heard something 'bout my ma and my pa/ They didn't want me so they made me a star”.
- #9 Dream - This song always reminds me of Across the Universe. It has the Spector Wall of Sound without Spector. Unlike most of the songs from Walls & Bridges, the saxes are nowhere to be found and it doesn't sound overproduced.
- The Lord Loves the One (That Loves the Lord) - A non-preachy song on a preachy album. Unlike ATMP, George is the only guitar player here, and he shows off a little without going overboard.
- Gimme Some Truth - very angry John. Had I done this list on a different day, How Do You Sleep would be here instead of this. The nasty slide guitar solo from George is a bonus. How would Let It Be or Abbey Road have sounded if the Beatles had agreed to do this one?
- Every Night - In my opinion, this one is probably Paul’s best solo song. Don't ask me why, it just is.
- Any Road - a ukulele-based song with clever lyrics. A fun track with flawless slide guitar.
- Nobody Told Me (JL Anthology version) - This was a work-in-progress, but all the elements of the finished track are there. He sounds like he's relaxed and having fun, something one didn’t hear enough of from John. I always have a giggle and a smile when I hear “a rolly rolly rolly rolly polly” bit at the fade-out. Apparently this was a first run-through of the songs, and given the finished product this illustrates how quickly John worked in the studio.
- Instant Karma - I think this one is obvious.
- New York City - On an album that is incredibly bad, here's a nugget that I enjoy. I always thought of this as as The Ballad of John and Yoko, Part II. A very uptempo song.from John, he sounds like he’s having fun, which is a rarity from John. See Nobody Told Me above.
- The Ballad of Sir Frankie Crisp - atmosphere - this song has plenty of it, especially with Pete Drake’s keening steel guitar.
- Cheer Down - George’s slide is extremely tasty and well-done. Anyone who thinks George Harrison is an underrated guitarist needs to hear this.
- Young Boy - A very good song from Flaming Pie. This one screams “Beatles”, and since this was done immediately after Anthology, that was probably the point. Outstanding guitar from Steve Miller.
There you have it. This is heavy with John and George songs because John is my favorite Beatle, and George is my favorite ex-Beatle. This was done off the top of my head today. If you ask me tomorrow, this list would probably change. Maybe there would be more songs from Paul. To wit, which songs stumbled at the finish line?
- Only Mama Knows - Paul rocks like a bastard on this one.
- Beautiful Boy - listen to this back to back with Watching the Wheels and you get a good sense of John's headspace at the time.
- I’d Have You Anytime - George's tune, Dylan's words. Clapton’s playing is superb. Perfect.
- Meat City - a crazy balls to the wall track from Mind Games. I couldn't get enough of this when I was a teenager.
- Beware of Darkness - This one could be on my list tomorrow. Another perfect track from George.
- Flaming Pie - Paul being goofy, but it works here.
- Tweeter and the Monkey Man - George doesn't sing, but the slide on the 12-string is vicious.
- Surprise Surprise (Sweet Bird of Paradox) - After the blandness that was the album Mind Games, Walls & Bridges was much better. Lyrically, this ode to May Pang always gripped me. “Could it be that I’ve bitten my own tongue?”
- Here Today - no explanation necessary.
- I’m the Greatest - 3 Beatles on one song at the same time. What's not to like? Great because Ringo sang it instead of John.
- Woman Don't You Cry For Me - George being funky with Willie Weeks. More great slide playing.
- That's the Way It Goes - one great song on Gone Troppo with even more great slide playing (a recurring theme, yes). Joe Brown did this at the Concert for George.
What Beatles book would I take with me? None. I’d take One Way Out, Alan Paul’s oral history of the Allman Brothers Band instead.