Songs where the Beatles, well, sucked (again!): Gimme Five

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We called “All You Need Is Love” a pasted-together goof, “The Long and Winding Road” a devastatingly maudlin bore. And you ripped us to shreds. Now, we’re back for more.

Actually, we could hardly wait to rejoin the fray.

After all, the original Beatles entry from our hotly debated Sucks Series remains the best-read item in our site’s history. The most commented upon, too.

So, let’s press on with Volume II. As before, we are avoiding Ringo Starr songs, pre-1965 tracks when the group was still emerging as songwriters, and the Beatles’ legendarily weird experimental items like “Revolution No. 9” or “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)”.

The focus here is on mainstream releases.

What we found was music we couldn’t stand from several of the Beatles most celebrated albums, including 1965’s Rubber Soul, 1967’s Sgt. Pepper and The White Album — in fact, there are two tracks from that overstuffed 1968 double album.

Join us, as S. Victor Aaron, Nick DeRiso, JC Mosquito and Kit O’Toole delve into a list that features a single tune apiece from both John Lennon and George Harrison, and three from Paul McCartney …

“OB-LA-DI OB-LA-DA” (THE BEATLES, 1968)

Brutal, 42-hour sessions like the one that produced “Ob La Di” did immeasurable damage to the Beatles musical partnership. As with the equally un-releasable “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” which featured equally interminable sessions over two album projects, McCartney was certain this throwaway ska-lite dud could be a hit. It wasn’t …

S. Victor Aaron: Paul makes a genre excursion into ska, which in itself wasn’t such a bad idea. But then he over-cutes it with a Yoruba expression that only sounds cool the first couple of times you hear it and amps up the crap level further with trite, unimaginative romance story that ends with rugrats and Molly still a singer in the band.

JC Mosquito: OK, here’s my chance to get two birds with one stone. Supposedly, Paul McCartney had a Jamaican friend who used to say this. As well, he capped his sentences with “bra'” — Jamaican slang for “brother,” I guess. So Paul invents a “reggae” song on which to try out his new hipness, which turns out not very reggae and not very hip at all. This is much like Paul Simon going all South African for his Graceland album. At least he could have given all those South African musicians co-billing on the cover. It’s also a bit like Led Zeppelin when they appropriated old blues songs for which they credited themselves, not the original writers. Fine – grow musically however you want, but at least have some good sense like Peter Gabriel, who always did a very good job of working with polyrhythmic culturally based music without sounding like he just came back wide eyed from a vacation in Cape Town.

Nick DeRiso: I can’t talk to Paul when he’s like this.

S. Victor Aaron: The only thing in the boilerplate missing is the “and they live happily ever after” part. What’s that, you say? He put that in there too? Say it ain’t so. Lennon got the hammer squarely on the head when he called it “Paul’s granny shit.”

JC Mosquito: One final example of pointless cultural appropriation: Didn’t Paul sound just like Kurt Cobain when he fronted Nirvana a couple of weeks ago on TV? Oh bra’, mon.

“ONLY A NORTHERN SONG” (YELLOW SUBMARINE, 1969):

As misanthropic as it is untuneful, the listless “Only a Northern Song” didn’t make the grade when the Beatles were sorting through tracks for ‘Sgt. Pepper,’ and probably wouldn’t have been released at all had they not needed extra material for the ‘Yellow Submarine’ soundtrack two years later. Damn you, ‘Yellow Submarine!’ …

S. Victor Aaron: George’s song bears out warning label built into the title. The the first thing he sings is “if you’re listening to this song, you may think the chords are going wrong.” After that ringing endorsement, I can’t go any further with it.

Nick DeRiso: George had this great habit of copping to it when he was screwing around. Remember on 1976’s “This Song,” when he sang: “This riff ain’t trying to win gold medals; this riff ain’t hip or square, well done or rare”? So true.

Kit O’Toole: I love the middle-finger, smirking attitude behind “Only A Northern Song’s” lyrics. Angry that Dick James’ publishing company Northern Songs owned all of the Beatles’ music (and believing that James took advantage of the young men’s naivete), George Harrison penned this “piss take,” as he told Billboard in 1999.

Nick DeRiso: This is certainly the kind of music that could make James’ investment worthless. I’m not sure Harrison ever did something more stubbornly lifeless during his time the Beatles.

Kit O’Toole: Normally I enjoy Harrison’s “poison pen” tracks that skewer public figures or even romantic conventions; here, the execution simply does not match the concept. The plodding organ virtually drowns out Harrison’s voice, while the random sound effects sound as if the Beatles and George Martin had raided Abbey Road Studio’s sound effects cabinets and threw everything but the kitchen sink on the record. What results is a sloppy recording, a rarity for the perfectionist band. One notable exception remains Ringo Starr’s powerful drumming, unfortunately buried in the overbearing tweeting and chirping of the sound loops. The Anthology 2 version, minus the distracting overdubs, presents an idea of what “Only A Northern Song” could have been.

JC Mosquito: I have the same issue with this song as I do with “The Ballad of John and Yoko”: When rock stars write about how hard it is to be a rock star, it’s not interesting to anyone but other rock stars. You have a hard time with your publisher and your royalties? You’re going to a gig so you can “rock?” There are too many hot girls throwing themselves at you? Average people identify with the parts of the song that ring true to themselves — unless they live their lives through their heroes and idols and their actions, which is maybe even sadder than writing a song that doesn’t connect in any meaningful way to anyone.

“SHE’S LEAVING HOME” (SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND, 1967):

Inspired by a newspaper story about a teenage runaway, “She’s Leaving Home” might have benefited had it enjoyed more participation from, you know, the actual Beatles. Or even George Martin. Instead, McCartney and Lennon’s voices are joined by a group of classically trained musicians sawing their way through a weepy score written on the fly …

S. Victor Aaron: I liked it when a string section was used in place of the band for “Eleanor Rigby” because the melody was a perfect match for it. There’s no worthwhile melody to be had here; it’s icepick-to-the-ears boring and the lyrics about a girl who’s run off from home don’t hold any attention, either, even if the damned story was true.

JC Mosquito: OK, I like this song. It’s a classic piece of storytelling – as a friend of mine said, “There are only two kinds of stories: a child leaves home; and a stranger comes to town.” This particular story has a twist: In some ways, it’s a story of a stranger leaving home. And it’s ambivalent. The parents, the girl, and “the man from the motor trade” are all unlikable characters to some degree. Stuff happens, and it’s about as realistic as one would dare to get in the great generational wars of the 1960s: It suggests that for some people self-interest and running away from family responsibilities might have been as strong a motivating factor as the desire for peace and love in the world.

Nick DeRiso: I’ve never been able to stay awake long enough to figure all of that out.

JC Mosquito: The part of “She’s Leaving Home” that I don’t like is this: in a brilliant move, McCartney gets someone (Mike Leander, I think) to score strings ala “Eleanor Rigby.” Playing the music in a style more associated with an older generation foreshadows the girl later in life when she finds she’s grown up and become just like her parents.

Nick DeRiso: McCartney was in such a hurry to get this track down that he wouldn’t wait for George Martin, who was in the midst of another session with Cilla Black, to score the strings — and it shows. This would be, at least until Phil Spector entombed parts of Let It Be, the most overdone, sadly bathetic orchestration to ever choke off a Beatles track.

JC Mosquito: That lack of rock ‘n’ roll makes it easy to skip over this song. Had it been played with a strong 6/8 backbeat and rock ‘n’ roll guitars, it might have got more attention and more backlash from the youth movement. Really, who wants to hear a song about how selfish you can really be?

Nick DeRiso: Unfortunately, McCartney and Lennon get caught up in this gossamer mess, handling their lyrics with the same dozed-off funereal tone. By the end, becoming a runaway was starting to make sense.

“RUN FOR YOUR LIFE” (RUBBER SOUL, 1965):

This joltingly violent misstep closed out a superlative album-length excursion into folk rock. Lennon had flirted with misogyny before on early cuts like “You Can’t Do That,” but nothing hinted at this kind of aggressive jealousy. It wasn’t a dashed-off add on, either: “Run for Your Life” was part of the very first sessions for ‘Rubber Soul’ …

Nick DeRiso: If you don’t listen to the lyrics, this song is of a piece with the rest of Rubber Soul, an oaken, hand-made folk rocker with a front-porch groove. The closer to you get to it, however, the more embarrassing it becomes.

JC Mosquito: This is a strictly by-the-numbers kind of song, all craft and no heart. It’s misogynistic as well, promoting the antiquated point of view of the male-to0female relationship as one of male power and ownership. The main culprit here is Lennon, who reportedly didn’t even like the song himself. They must’ve had something else they could have used to round out the album, one would think — unless at some odd moment in time, someone on the production team really did think this was a good song.

Kit O’Toole: While the lyrics may cause today’s audiences discomfort, “Run for Your Life” should still stand as a catchy pop/rock song that effectively utilizes the Beatles’ distinctive harmonies. It may not exemplify the Beatles’ absolute best work, but the track does not deserve complete scorn.

S. Victor Aaron: The melody is not horrible, the chorus harmonies are pretty good and there’s a nice little slide hiding behind George’s lead guitar. So why is this song on the list? Because John’s misogyny is excessive to the point of disturbing. “You better run for your life if you can, little girl/Hide your head in the sand little girl/Catch you with another man/That’s the end’a little girl” are slap-a-restraining-order words. Sure it was 1965, but that’s much different than when Elvis sang “I’d rather see you dead, little girl than to be with another man” in 1955 in a song where he was otherwise flattering the girl. Lennon was a raging, jealous guy making cringe-worthy physical threats the whole song. At least he later repented, calling it his “least favorite Beatles song.”

Nick DeRiso: When not extolling the virtues of giving peace a chance, Lennon always had that violent underside — and this bundle of contradictions only added to the complexity and intrigue of his personality. Of course, as he matured, Lennon seemed to come to a greater understanding of the way his own foibles played out in relationships, notably on songs like “Jealous Guy,” from 1971’s Imagine. That was a long time off, though, at this point — and it shows.

“HONEY PIE” (THE BEATLES, 1968):

On an album where the Beatles tried on a number of experimental personas, this syrupy vaudeville number seemed out of place. (Even Lennon’s noise-rock pastiche “Revolution No. 9” echoed the project’s turbulent times.) Retrograde and quite staid, McCartney had already done this kind of pre-war jazz tribute with “When I’m 64,” and done it better …

S. Victor Aaron: More of Paul’s granny shit. That “sweet” dance band music was real cool when Paul Whiteman was doing it in the ’20s, but comes off as painfully mawkish in the hands of a rock band in the late ’60s. During this time, Paul was raiding his parent’s record collection while John was shooting heroin. Somehow, I think the two events were related.

Nick DeRiso: With “When I’m 64,” Paul had created an idyllic curio that fit perfectly into the wow-man surrealism that surrounded Sgt. Pepper’s. A year later, he returns to the theme, but without the benefit of that context. Worse, and this is the real failure of the song, he seems to be winking his way through a joke that’s not very funny.

JC Mosquito: One Christmas, we had this custard pie that spent the requisite time in the oven but came out runny all the same. It couldn’t be cut, so we doled it out in bowls and used spoons. “Honey Pie” is just like that – no matter who made it or how much effort went into it, it still comes out half baked.

Nick DeRiso: Paul continued making this same mistake on tracks like “You Gave Me the Answer” on 1975’s Venus and Mars, always playing it too teeth-splinteringly cutesy, until last year’s superlative Kiss on the Bottom — when he finally brought a focus to bear on what made these songs interesting in the first place.

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The Something Else! webzine, an accredited Google News affiliate, has been featured in The New York Times and NPR.com's A Blog Supreme, while our writers have also been published by USA Today, Jazz.com and UltimateClassicRock.com, among others. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
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