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The Beatles’ Singles: 22 Songs That Changed The World

The Beatles may have ushered in the “album era” of music, but their singles were no less influential on the course of pop music. Here’s why…

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When we look back at The Beatles’ career, it’s only natural that we trace their progress through the groundbreaking albums they made between 1963 and 1969. But that only tells part of the story. The Beatles may have helped shift the focus from singles to long-playing albums, but at the start of their career they were, first and foremost, a band that made phenomenal singles, many of which didn’t actually appear on their albums. With pop music still primarily a singles market in the mid-60s, The Beatles’ singles, then, offer something of a parallel discography: a different lens through which to trace their artistic trajectory.

1962: ‘Love Me Do’

The group had actually recorded a single even before signing with Parlophone. Credited as The Beat Brothers, John, Paul, George and Pete Best backed the English singer Tony Sheridan on a rocked-up version of ‘My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean’, which was released on Polydor in West Germany. It was a customer’s request for that recording that led to Liverpool record-shop owner Brian Epstein tracking down and eventually managing The Beatles.

Once Brian had secured them a short contract with George Martin’s Parlophone Records, a subsidiary of EMI, the producer began looking into which songs to include on their first single. “I picked up on ‘Love Me Do’ mainly because of the harmonica sound,” Martin later recalled. And so it was that the first Beatles single, ‘Love Me Do’/‘PS I Love You’, was issued in the UK on 5 October 1962 and entered the UK singles charts. After a few weeks of going up, then down, then back up and down again, it finally peaked at No.17 in the last week of 1962. They were off and running.

1963: ‘Please Please Me’, ‘From Me To You’, ‘She Loves You’, ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’

For the follow-up, Martin decided to play it safe and get the boys to record a song that he knew would be a hit – ‘How Do You Do It?’, by songwriter Mitch Murray. The only snag was, The Beatles didn’t like it. But, being good Beatles, they took the song away and rehearsed it, before returning to EMI Studios to give it a go. Martin was not unsympathetic to their renewed protests, and asked them what they had of their own that could compete. It was at this point that they played him ‘Please Please Me’, a song composed by John at his Aunt Mimi’s house in Liverpool, in the summer of 1962. Originally a slow-rocker in the style of Roy Orbison’s ‘Only The Lonely’, they sped the song up on Martin’s advice, and set to work recording it. “They played me ‘Please Please Me’ but it was very slow and rather dreary,” Martin recalled. “I told them if they doubled the speed it might be interesting.”

The single was recorded on 26 November 1962, and, towards the end of the session, Martin told the boys: “You’ve just made your first No.1.” Released on 11 January 1963, ‘Please Please Me’/‘Ask Me Why’ topped both the NME and Melody Maker charts, but stalled at No.2 on the Record Retailer chart – the one that would later become the UK’s official listing.

‘Please Please Me’ was the first of four astonishing singles the group released in 1963, with the next three all topping the UK charts. First off was ‘From Me To You’, which John and Paul wrote while touring the UK on a bill with Helen Shapiro. By now, the band were almost continually on the road, driving the length and breadth of the United Kingdom in their cramped van, often playing two or more shows a day, as well as recording TV and radio appearances. Living out of suitcases, John and Paul would have no option but to write on the move.

For their fourth Parlophone single, Paul McCartney remembered a songwriting session in their hotel room in Newcastle: “We must have had a few hours before the show, so we said, ‘Oh, great! Let’s have a ciggie and write a song!’” ‘She Loves You’ broke all records and became the biggest-selling single of the 60s in the UK; its catchy “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!” chorus became a universal refrain. In mere months, The Beatles had gone from provincial upstarts to national treasures – though not everybody loved the song. Paul recalled how they finished it at his family home on Forthlin Road, Liverpool, before proudly taking it into the living room to play to his dad. “He said, ‘That’s very nice, son, but there’s enough of these Americanisms around. Couldn’t you sing ‘She loves you. Yes! Yes! Yes!’?”

By now, George Martin was becoming increasingly frustrated with EMI’s Capitol Records in the US, who steadfastly refused to release The Beatles’ singles stateside. But their next offering proved too tempting even for Capitol. It seemed as though there was no doubt by now that ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ would be another No.1 – The Beatles’ fourth of the year, depending on which charts you read. But more than just another sonic smash for Liverpool’s finest, ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ would be the single that broke them across the Atlantic – and, subsequently, around the globe.

1964: ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’, ‘A Hard Day’s Night’, ‘I Feel Fine’

The Beatles began 1964 in fine fettle. Whereas 12 months earlier, they had been fighting to get a Lennon/McCartney composition released as an A-side, 1964 found them writing hit records seemingly to order. With their whirlwind first visit to the US having been perhaps the greatest success in show-business history, the group returned to the UK to begin work on their first feature film for United Artists. The first single to be taken from the movie was ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’, written by Paul at the Olympia Theatre in Paris, and recorded at the city’s Pathé Marconi Studios, making it the only Beatles single recorded outside of London.

With a number of working titles, the work-in-progress movie finally found its identity when John wrote ‘A Hard Day’s Night’, a song based on a comment from Ringo. “I was going home in the car and Dick Lester suggested the title from something Ringo had said,” John later explained. “I had used it in In His Own Write, but it was an off-the-cuff remark by Ringo, one of those malapropisms – a Ringoism – said not to be funny, just said. So Dick Lester said, ‘We are going to use that title,’ and the next morning I brought in the song.” ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ was their next release. Needless to say, both the movie’s singles topped the charts.

However, the idea of lifting their singles from albums went against The Beatles’ belief that this was taking unfair advantage of their fans. Aside from their two movie soundtracks, where the singles and album were a part of the deal, The Beatles preferred that their singles be standalone cuts. And so it was with their final single of 1964.

‘I Feel Fine’ is notable for being the first Beatles single to feature the sort of sonic innovation that would become their trademark over the coming years, as they spent more time playing around with sounds in the studio. The single opens with a burst of feedback – believed to be the first deliberate use of feedback on a pop single. As George Harrison explained in Anthology, “John got a bit of feedback unintentionally and liked the sound and thought that it would be good at the start of the song. From then on he started to hold the guitar to create the feedback for every take that we recorded.”

1965: ‘Ticket To Ride’, ‘Help!’, ‘We Can Work It Out’/‘Day Tripper’

Much as with the previous year, The Beatles kicked off 1965 as actors. Filming on their second movie, Help!, began in the Bahamas in February. Though the film wasn’t released until the summer, the first single from its accompanying soundtrack appeared in April 1965, and, with it, a new period in Beatles singles was born.

‘Ticket To Ride’ was in so many ways an artistic advance from their output of even just a few months prior. As Ian MacDonald put it in his book Revolution In The Head, “As sheer sound, ‘Ticket To Ride’ is extraordinary for its time – massive with chiming electric guitars, weighty rhythm, and rumbling floor tom-toms.” John Lennon described it as “one of the earliest heavy metal records”.

With the movie came the soundtrack album and title song. But while the film was a madcap comedy in which The Beatles whizz around the world to increasingly exotic locations (for no real reason other than the four of them fancied going there), the title song hid in plain sight the mounting pressures of being a Beatle – especially on John Lennon: “I didn’t realise it at the time – I just wrote the song because I was commissioned to write it for the movie – but later I knew, really I was crying out for help. ‘Help!’ was about me.”

Its B-side, the Little Richard-inspired ‘I’m Down’, would be the last time the group would look backwards on a single until consciously doing so in 1969. From here on, everything they put out would signal another advance, beginning with their first double-A-sided single, the remarkable ‘We Can Work It Out’/‘Day Tripper’.

Paul had written ‘We Can Work It Out’ as a “more uptempo thing, country and western”. But the band all contributed to its evolution, with John helping on the “Life is very short” middle eight (John: “You’ve got Paul writing ‘We can work it out’, real optimistic; and me, impatient: ‘Life is very short and there’s no time for fussing…’”), and George suggesting the waltz-time section.

For John’s ‘Day Tripper’, Paul’s driving bass guitar underpins a great R&B track, his simple rhythmic playing on the middle eight serving to build that passage to a frenzied climax. The combination of the two gave the group their third No.1 hit of a year that also featured two albums, a full-colour movie, a US tour that included a record-breaking concert at New York’s Shea Stadium, and the MBE, awarded by the Queen.

1966: ‘Paperback Writer’, ‘Eleanor Rigby’

By comparison, 1966 might on the surface seem something of a quieter year. Just the one new album, Revolver, no movies and only two singles – one of which having uncharacteristically been lifted from an album. However, where they may have reduced the quantity, they ramped the quality up to hitherto unimagined levels.

Spending much of April to June at EMI recording their revolutionary new album, The Beatles’ first single of the year was breathtaking, both in its vitality and innovation. The A-side, ‘Paperback Writer’, was a song Paul had begun while driving out to John’s house in Surrey. “Because I had a long drive to get there, I would often start thinking away and writing on my way out, and I developed the whole idea in the car. I came in, had my bowl of cornflakes, and said, ‘How’s about if we write a letter: “Dear Sir or Madam,” next line, next paragraph, etc?’ I wrote it all out and John said, ‘Yeah, that’s good.’ It just flowed.”

‘Paperback Writer’ featured layers of harmony vocals and a stinging electric guitar from George. On the flipside was John’s ‘Rain’, which became the first Beatles record to use backwards music, and was also notable for its brilliant rhythm section, in the shape of Ringo’s drums and Paul’s bass. Released on 10 June 1966, the single soundtracked a baking-hot British summer that saw the England football team win the World Cup at Wembley, and the streets of London throb with hip young people, as swinging London’s Carnaby Street and King’s Road boutiques fitted the dedicated followers of fashion with the latest fab gear.

For The Beatles, however, that summer was a very different scene, as they courted controversy on their world tour. They landed first in Japan, where locals protested their performance at Tokyo’s Budokan, a venue previously only used for sacred traditional martial arts. Things boiled over in Singapore, as a perceived snub on President Marcos and his wife saw them pleased to escape the country with their lives. And in the wake of John Lennon’s comments about how The Beatles were becoming more popular than Jesus Christ, their tour of the United States was marred by protests again his supposed blasphemy.

The band returned to England on 31 August, determined never to tour again, and promptly all took a well-earned few months off.

With the demand for a Christmas single and the new album growing, but with no new product on the horizon, Brian Epstein and George Martin made the decision to release the Revolver album and, on the same day, a single with two tracks – ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and ‘Yellow Submarine’ – lifted from it, despite the group’s hesitance to make fans pay twice for the same song. That Christmas saw the release of A Collection Of Beatles Oldies (But Goldies!), a compilation of singles, B-sides and album cuts. Had The Beatles finally run out of ideas?

1967: ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’/‘Penny Lane’, ‘All You Need Is Love’, ‘Hello, Goodbye’

In December 1966, they regrouped at EMI to begin work on their next project. Initial ideas included making a concept album about their childhood, and the first songs they recorded reflected that. First up was ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’. John had begun writing the song during breaks from filming How I Won The War, in Almeria, Spain. The title referred to Strawberry Field, a Salvation Army children’s home close to John’s childhood home with his Aunt Mimi in the leafy Liverpool suburb of Woolton, where John would play while growing up, and which became an escape as a teenager.

Two versions of the song were recorded, one with orchestration from George Martin, the other a heavier and faster version with the full band. Unable to choose between the two, John asked Martin to create a third version by splicing the two together. This “cut-and-shut” was achieved as much by luck, as the two versions were in different pitches and speeds. By chance, slowing one down matched the pitches perfectly.

Paul’s foil to this was ‘Penny Lane’, written about a district of Liverpool that he would pass through on his way into the city centre. The song perfectly evokes life under the blue suburban skies, with its fireman, barber and “four of fish and finger pie” behind the bus stop in the middle of the roundabout. Layering pianos one on top of the other, Paul created a bright piece of pop on top of which he wanted to add a “tremendously high trumpet” that he’d heard on the TV. George Martin hired the same player, David Mason, to play a piccolo trumpet part that stretched even perhaps the country’s finest trumpeter to the limit.

With recording taking so much longer now, and the group in no apparent hurry to deliver a finished album, demand for new Beatles product became so great that Epstein and Martin opted to release ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and ‘Penny Lane’ as a double-A-side in February 1967. Still considered by many critics to be one of the finest 7” singles ever released, it seems impossible now to think that this was The Beatles’ first single not to top the charts since ‘Love Me Do’, being kept from the top spot by Englebert Humperdinck’s ‘Release Me’. The Beatles were philosophical about this, however, with Paul remarking, “It’s fine if you’re kept from being No.1 by a record like ‘Release me’, because you’re not trying to do the same kind of thing. That’s a completely different scene altogether.”

With their attention now firmly on completing Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, it began to look as though the group were shifting their focus from the singles market to albums. And yet, no sooner had they finished Sgt Pepper than they were back in the studio, working on yet another hit single written to order.

Brian Epstein had been approached to invite The Beatles to represent Britain on Our World, the world’s first live, international satellite-television broadcast. John wrote ‘All You Need Is Love’ for the occasion. As George Harrison explained in Anthology, “Because of the mood of the time, it seemed to be a great idea to perform that song while everybody else was showing knitting in Canada or Irish clog dances in Venezuela.”

‘All You Need Is Love’ became the anthem for what would go down in history as the Summer Of Love, and the single was backed with a tasty tune called ‘Baby, You’re A Rich Man’, boasting the Flower Power refrain, “How does it feel to be one of the beautiful people?”

But the group weren’t done for the year. Following the accidental death of manager Brian Epstein in August, they embarked on their latest project, a self-made movie for TV, called Magical Mystery Tour. While these days, most people consider the Magical Mystery Tour album to be part of The Beatles’ catalogue, it was originally only ever released as an album in the US; in the UK it was released as a beautifully packaged gatefold double-EP. But before that came ‘Hello, Goodbye’/‘I Am The Walrus’ – another No.1 hit, which featured one of the greatest B-sides in history, as Lennon’s Lewis Carroll-inspired masterpiece featured all kinds of psychedelic sound effects, random radio sounds, backwards music and surreal lyrics. His ideas, it seemed, just wouldn’t stop flowing.

1968: ‘Lady Madonna’, ‘Hey Jude’

For John, Paul, George and Ringo, 1968 would be dominated by two major events. Firstly, from mid-February, the four bandmates, plus wives and girlfriends, as well as other friends, journeyed to Rishikesh, India, to study Transcendental Meditation under Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Though Ringo and then Paul left within around a month, John and George remained at the Maharishi’s Ashram until mid-April.

The second major Beatles event of 1968 was recording “The White Album”, which consisted of many songs written in India. Recording started on the sprawling double-album in May and took up most of their time until its completion in October.

Despite these two events spanning three quarters of the year, The Beatles still managed to find time to record two more No.1 singles. The first of these was released while the group were in India, in order to maintain a public profile. Written by Paul on the piano, ‘Lady Madonna’ was inspired by Fats Domino – hence the distinctly New Orleans flavour to the song. The B-side, however, traced its origins to the other side of the world, in India. ‘The Inner Light’ marked the first time a George Harrison song was included on a Beatles 7” in the UK, and featured no Beatles on the instrumental backing, which was created by Indian musicians under Harrison’s supervision.

The group’s next single would be one of their biggest-selling and one of their most enduring. It would also be the first release on their newly established Apple record label. Written again by Paul, this time after visiting John’s estranged first wife, Cynthia, and their son, Julian, ‘Hey Jude’ began life as ‘Hey Jules’. At over seven minutes long, it was an unusual choice for a single, and yet its nine-week run at the top of the US charts was the longest of any Beatles single.

The song’s famous singalong ending had its first outing in the unlikely venue of a pub in a Bedfordshire village called Harrold, chosen simply because Paul and some friends liked the name. As publicist Derek Taylor recalled, “In the pub, Paul got to a piano and a sing-song was started – he’d always been good at that sort of thing – and he said, ‘Well, here’s a new one,’ and he played ‘Hey Jude’. Taught them how it went: ‘Na, na, na, na, na, na, naa…’ so they were all at it! That was the premiere of ‘Hey Jude’. It was an unbelievably wonderful night. We didn’t leave there until dawn was coming up.”

‘Hey Jude’ was backed by a ferocious rocker from John, which reflected the social upheaval in the air. 1968 was a year of riots on the streets of Paris, Chicago, London and other cities, as civil-rights issues and increasing opposition to the war in Vietnam brought tensions around the world to a head. John’s ‘Revolution’ called for change, while at the same time leaving the Beatle on the fence when it came to his involvement. On the single version he sings, “When you talk about destruction/Don’t you know that you can count me out,” but on other versions he’s more ambiguous, changing the lyric to “… count me out/in”.

The filming of a promo clip for each side of this latest single saw The Beatles performing in front of an audience for the first time in two years. Their enjoyment of interacting with a roomful of people would inspire their next project.

1969: ‘Get Back’, ‘The Ballad Of John & Yoko’, ‘Something’

Having spent much of 1968 in the studio, The Beatles entered 1969 with another No.1 album to their name; but their work rate showed no signs of stopping, and the group reconvened on 2 January to begin a new project. The idea was to film The Beatles preparing new songs to be performed at an unspecified venue, with the result being issued as an album. The group began filming rehearsals – known as the “Get Back” sessions – at Twickenham Film Studios, before moving to their own Apple Studios, recently built in the basement of their Savile Row office building, where they staged the famous rooftop concert.

While the sessions have gone down in Beatles-lore as their darkest hour, much of the footage from Savile Row shows the band enjoying playing together, working on songs that would eventually form the Let It Be album. After the rooftop performance, however, the sessions wrapped without a full project having taken shape, though the single ‘Get Back’/‘Don’t Let Me Down’ was released in April. Joining the four of them at Savile Row was an old friend, the American keyboardist Billy Preston. Such was his contribution that the single was credited to “The Beatles with Billy Preston” – the only time the group credited an outside artist on a single.

‘Get Back’ was still at the top of the charts when The Beatles issued a follow-up. Unusually, only two of the group appeared on ‘The Ballad Of John & Yoko’. The song told the story of the titular couple’s whirlwind wedding and honeymoon, and Lennon was keen to get it recorded and released as quickly as possible. “John and Yoko came round to see me,” Paul remembered. “And John said, ‘I’ve got this song about me and Yoko, and I’m hot to record it. I’d like to ring up the studio, get some time and we could do it right now. You could play bass and you could play drums,’” which is exactly what happened.

If The Beatles were getting towards the end of their time working together, it didn’t seem to be denting their productivity. With the bulk of one album and a film already in the can, they began work in earnest on their third album within 12 months that summer (though the first session for what became Abbey Road dated back to February 1969). With that album having been issued in September, the release of ‘Something’/‘Come Together’ as a single in October proved the only time in their lifespan as a group that The Beatles put out a single of tracks in the UK that were already available.

1970: ‘Let It Be’

By now, the group’s energy and enthusiasm was waning. With each band member moving in a different direction, the final session for Abbey Road, in August 1969, had marked the last time the four Beatles would ever work together. No more recording took place at all in 1969, but on 3 January 1970, Paul, George and Ringo returned once more to Abbey Road, where they spent two days working on songs for the revived “Get Back” project. Their last recording session together involved overdubs on what would become their next single, ‘Let It Be’. Paul’s gospel-tinged ballad had first surfaced during a break in recording ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, in September 1968.

And that was it. In April 1970, in a “self-interview” press release accompanying advance copies of his first solo album McCartney, Paul announced a break from The Beatles. Replying to the question of whether it was “temporary or permanent”, he said, “I don’t know.” Nevertheless, news media around the world reported The Beatles had split up. Rumours persisted for years to come of a reunion, all of which were silenced by the murder of John Lennon in December 1980. And yet…

The 90s: ‘Free As A Bird’, ‘Real Love’

Fast-forward a quarter of a century. Since before their split, long-term associate Neil Aspinall had been charged with the task of acquiring rights to footage of the group, as they sought to tell their own story in a documentary style. But it wasn’t until the mid-90s that the project, by now expanded to a multi-part series entitled Anthology, saw the surviving Beatles reunited – and not just to recount their history.

After Paul had been given a cassette of some of John’s unfinished home demos by Yoko Ono, he, George and Ringo returned to the studio to finish them off. The result was two new Beatles recordings – the first in 25 years. First came ‘Free As A Bird’, released for Christmas 1995, and then ‘Real Love’. The Beatles always had impeccable timing, and so it was that these new recordings emerged just as Britain was enjoying its most vibrant music scene for decades. Dubbed “Britpop”, the music created by bands like Blur, Pulp and avowed Beatles fanatics Oasis had journalists recalling the glory years of the 60s, when The Beatles and their string of hit singles had first made Britain No.1 in the world for pop music…

Spanning 23 7”s, The Beatles: The Singles Collection box set is out now. Buy it here.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Stephen Higginson

    December 2, 2019 at 8:23 am

    They were not in Singapore snubbing President Marcos and his wife Imelda, that was in Manila in the Philippines m.

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