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

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.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Despite its very uneven soundtrack, there was some real magic associated with The Beatles' 'Yellow Submarine': Namely, its eye-poppingly psychedelic animation.]

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.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Perhaps unsurprisingly, we created just as much controversy when we took on selected solo albums by the Beatles that, well, sucked. McCartney fans, unite!]

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.

[BEYOND THE BEATLES' HITS: Think you know the Fab Four? Kit O'Toole's 'Deep Beatles' series takes you into some undiscovered corners of the group's ageless musical legacy.]

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.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: What you’re struck by, as Paul McCartney cuts a quietly emotional figure on the new concert standards set 'Live Kisses' is how un-dashing he is, how un-Sinatra. It's perfect.]

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.

Something Else!

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.

34 Comments

  1. JC Mosquito JC Mosquito says:

    I’m not old enough to have grown up a Beatlemaniac. I was probably at least twenty before I realized they were more than just a mainstream pop act who got lucky despite the fact that they didn’t have the talent to go along with their unjustifiable popularity (or, as many a fifteen year old might’ve said back in those times, “Deep Purple rocks – but The Beatles suck!”).

    But I did change my mind; my conversion to the Cult of Perfect Beatledom came at least ten years after they had broken up and was made of my own free will under no threat of harm or coercion by my peers. It was at that point I finally understood the Beatles’ place of high importance in the 1960s youth movement. A subculture powered by youthful energy and rock music, it challenged and changed many societal norms of the time, and its effects still reverberate well into the 21st century.

    I had to play catch up concerning The Beatles and their wonderful music. But I had at least a few years to develop my own particular tastes, and to this day I have no fanboy need to keep The Beatles on a pedestal and exempt them from normal discussion. They wrote a lot of great songs, but remember: just like someone has to graduate at the bottom of the class in high school, any given collection of songs by any artist has to have a few that find themselves near the bottom.

    • I think I started listening to the Beatles about the same time. And by then, it was already like a cult. You either were in, or out. I guess it was easier to stay out. Some of their stuff, I like. But these are absolutely some times in which I want to shove something sharp in my ears.

      • Dead Sea Troll says:

        Don’t feel badly, BeatlesMeh. Hell, even the guys complaining about the Beatles here try to have it both ways. JC and Kit seem to be arguing for songs that Victor and Nick — the last of whom I’m convinced secretly hates the Beatles — are arguing against.

  2. “She’s Leaving Home”? Are you guys just trolling your readers?

    • Jimmy Nelson says:

      I was so happy when ‘Sgt. Pepper’ finally came out on CD in 1987. That meant I’ve never had to listen to “She’s Leaving Home” — a sad-sack soap-opera weepfest — ever again. What a downer.

      • Dead Sea Troll says:

        I love the way, once more, Paul’s and John’s parts work in contrast. It’s sappy, I guess, deep down. But, as the Beatles moved forward, there wouldn’t be many more times when you got to hear that.

  3. I am old enough to remember waiting for the drop date of these albums and rushing out to buy them. But boy did I feel taken when I listened to the White Album, so much trash amidst the good stuff, and you nailed just a fraction of it here. Recently I took the CD out to the car to listen to with my 15 year old and found myself skipping tracks constantly for her to try to find that good stuff. As I said to her, it would have made a great single album, but as a double it is not only embarrassing but it left her wondering about the legacy that is the Beatles. Well done.

    • Nick DeRiso says:

      I’m not sure that it still couldn’t have been a great double album, just with different sequencing — and the inclusion of other tracks from the same year in place of a few lesser efforts like “Ob-La-Da,” “Long Long Long” and “Honey Pie,” among others.

      “Hey Jude” and “Lady Madonna” were just two of the 1968 songs that never made the White Album. I’ve added another that eventually showed up as a B-side to “Lady Madonna,” another didn’t see wide release until Spector goofed it up for Let It Be, and a third that didn’t become available until the Anthology series arrived in the mid-1990s. I also included, just because I love it so, the acoustic version of “While My Guitar.”

      Try out this highly subjective alternate mix:

      SIDE ONE
      Lady Madonna
      Glass Onion
      While My Guitar Gently Weeps (acoustic version from Anthology)
      Back in the USSR
      Across the Universe (Let It Be … Naked version)
      I Will

      SIDE TWO
      Revolution 1
      Martha My Dear
      Julia
      Rocky Raccoon
      Cry Baby Cry
      Not Guilty (from Anthology)

      SIDE THREE
      Happiness is a Warm Gun
      Blackbird
      Everybody’s Got Something to Hide
      The Inner Light
      Yer Blues
      Mother Nature’s Son

      SIDE FOUR
      Birthday
      Bungalow Bill
      Savoy Truffle
      I’m So Tired
      Hey Jude
      Dear Prudence

      • You are right. This is a much better White Album. My only change would be to include both versions of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” The famous version is one of my very favorite songs.

        • The acoustic version blew me away, the first time I heard it on the “Anthology” albums. Straight forward, no pomp. With all apologies to Eric Clapton, and the rest, it’s my favorite!

      • where’s helter skelter?

        • My thoughts exactly. I’m not as down on the lesser tracks of “The Beatles” than some here, but you can’t leave out “Helter Skelter”. This little slice of proto-punk is one of the better tracks from the Beatles’ later years.

  4. I’m going to try to cover a lot of ground here so stick with me. Not all of it will be directly related to this thread.

    Not fair you don’t count Ringo songs & I know you are also skipping pre-Rubber Soul music by the Fabs too. That really limits your choices.

    I’ve always been a sucker for Paul’s old timey music, probably because I grew up on my Mom’s old 1940′s 78 RPM records so that stuff became 2nd nature to me.

    My choices for the worst include “Yellow Submarine” a kids tune written by Paul that mucks up an otherwise truly wonderful album, Revolver, the little snippets of “Dig it” and “Maggie Mae” from Let it Be & one I’m surprised that nobody mentioned, the eternally creepy “I am the Walrus. “All You Need is Love” is worse? Really? Also, Ringo’s boring, sparsely arranged cover of Carl Perkins’ “Honey Don’t” & 2 early George songs. One they they recorded before he learned how to write, “You Like Me too Much” and his cover of Carl Perkins’ “Everybody’s Trying To Be My Baby.”

    I agree with most of the rest of your clunkers though.

    For those of you who hate “For You Blue” from another thread: Are you kidding me? It’s one of George’s finest. While I don’t hate the #1 hit on the other side this was definitely the standout of the 2 songs.

    Also, I have a suggestion for Kit and the rest of you Beatlemaniacs. How about a Gimme 5 featuring the best of pre-Rubber Soul songs. While a lot of that stuff is definitely formative there was still a lot of innovation there.

    Thank you.

    • It’s funny, I love old-timey music — and I love Paul’s old-timey music, when he’s playing it straight, as on the new Kisses album. “Honey Pie,” however, doesn’t feel authentic to me, and neither do his later attempts with Wings. He was too busy nudge-nudging at the irony of it all to give these songs the performances that they deserved. Quite frankly, it’s why I initially dreaded the news that he was returning to standards. I’ve got to tell you, though, that they ended up as some of the most fine detailed, emotionally resonant things McCartney has ever done.

      • Paul Is Live says:

        I take exception that Paul never did as good a job with the older style. I thought 2005′s “English Tea” was outstanding, and maybe a precursor to the successes he would have on ‘Kisses.’ Of course, Diana Krall didn’t hurt any, either.

    • S. Victor Aaron says:

      Unfair to exclude Ringo songs? I prefer the term “merciful” ;-)

      • Jimmy Nelson says:

        You could fill up the whole list with Ringo songs. The only argument would be which one was worse … “Don’t Pass Me By” or “Octopus’s Garden.” Of course, the others wrote songs like “Yellow Submarine,” “Good Night” and “What Goes On?” for him, so I guess there’s plenty of blame to go around.

    • Who doesn’t like “I Am The Walrus”? I stopped reading after that. If nothing else, it has an earth-shattering groove.

  5. That’s a pretty cool alternate White Album lineup! My only question is: “No ‘Helter Skelter’?” : (

    • Nick DeRiso says:

      I’m certain, though this can’t be part of a very long list, that “Helter Skelter” is the best heavy metal song ever written about a carnival ride. Still, for whatever reason, it’s never done much for me.

    • Paul Is Live says:

      I seem to remember John Lennon in one of his Rolling Stone interviews saying ‘Helter Skelter’ “was just a noise.” I kinda feel the same way. As much as I love Paul, I always skip this one.

      • “Helter Skelter” is completely overrated, just a mess. Another example of how people will accept anything put out by the Beatles as manna from heaven.

        • Beatles Meh, your post is another example of someone who doesn’t quite get it. It’s ok, but you may need to go back to the listening room.

  6. Alternate White Album

    USSR
    Prudence
    Not Guilty
    Blackbird
    Monkey
    Sadie
    Helter Skelter
    Revolution
    Savoy Truffle
    Cry Baby Cry/Take Me Back
    I’m So Tired
    Hey Jude
    Good Night

    40 something minutes. Add to the CD version that 10 minute unedited version of Revolution 1 that’s been making its rounds on the ‘net recently.

    As for Ringo, “Don’t Pass Me By” as done by the Georgia Satellites (found on “Greatest Hits” and “Open All Night”) is a seriously kicking ass version of an otherwise pedestrian song.

  7. Nick DeRiso says:

    Here are additional thoughts from Kit O’Toole on “Run for Your Life,” from her regular Deep Beatles column —

    http://somethingelsereviews.com/2013/01/18/deep-beatles-run-for-your-life-1965/

  8. Tony Hedberg says:

    Just the fact that they are still being discussed 50 years later is testament to their impact and ongoing relevance.

  9. Frank Martin says:

    The only reason anything is relevant is because it isn’t forgotten. If the Beatles had sold only 30 million records, only had a few top ten hits and the occassional #1 album would anyone still be raving about them?

    The thing about bands is that the fans always think their fave band is relevant whether they are or not.

    The Beatles have just as many forgettable songs as memorable songs even if no one wants to admit it. Every band out there has written songs that don’t appeal to everyone. What is there to say about them that hasn’t been said already? People like to think of the Beatles as being invincible and they can do no wrong and that listening to the same songs for forty years is going to yield some hidden meaning within the song that they haven’t heard before.

    Now I can sit and wait for the angry comments from adoring fans. :)

  10. Here are the real clams:

    You Like Me Too Much (Help!)
    Maxwell’s Silver Hammer (Abbey Road)
    Blue Jay Way (Magical Mystery Tour)
    The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill (White Album)

    Also bad:

    Lennon’s wretched bass playing on “The Ballad of John & Yoko” & “The Long & Winding Road”
    12-Bar Original, If You’ve Got Trouble, That Means A Lot, and other rejects that were released in the 90s to fund the Threatles’ retirement.

  11. Certainly there are worse Beatle songs than “Run For Your Life”. Catchy enough and while the lyrics may be interpreted as a politically incorrect caveman-think by those who consider themselves “evolved”, who of us, male or female, haven’t felt the sting of jealousy or fantasized about retribution for being betrayed?

    What John should have regretted was “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road” and the other bloat that reduced The White album from a great record to a spotty double album.

  12. Hmmm don’t agree with these choices this time. Maybe Ob-La-Di as I often get annoyed by that song. “She’s Leaving Home” is gorgeous. Nothing wrong with that. “Run For Your Life” is a little bit misogynist (reflecting Lennon’s tendency to beat women) but it has a catchy tune…but it’s a hard TUNE to sing along to.

    “Only a Northern Song” predicts noise rock tendencies which is fun. I also love the bitter, bitter lyrics. George was a weirdo.

    That said, I see the logic behind your complaints. I just don’t agree.

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