As a temporary resident of Liverpool, a city which plays up its Beatles-related legacy with almost religious zeal, I learned a few things very quickly. The first lesson? When you’ve seen one Beatles tribute act, you’ve seen them all. Although the Fab Four had a wildly prolific career, writing more than 300 songs (not even brushing solo material), the same 40 or so selections seem to make up the core of the regional tribute repertoire here. Granted, with a catalog that huge, there are bound to be a few duds, but there’s also a huge, cavernous mine of under-appreciated gems just waiting to be dug up again and re-examined. Here are 10 of my favorite Beatles songs which tend to slip under the radar.
1. “I’ll Be Back” (Lennon/McCartney, A Hard Day’s Night, 1964)
A simple, gorgeous meditation on a breakup, from the early days. The lyrics are simple, the chord progression just the appropriate tone for brooding and the harmonies are exquisite. This is The Beatles at the peak of their (happy) functionality as a single suited-up unit, before creative tensions and separate interests began manifesting fully.
2. “Little Child” (Lennon/McCartney, With The Beatles, 1963)
The shortest entry on this list clocks in at only 1:48, but in less than two minutes, the guys still pack in quite a bit. The harmonica honks, rollicking piano and hurried vocals (save a sultry “I’m so sad and loooonely” in the chorus) will make you want to get up and do the twist with the nearest groovy cat or bird you see.
3.“I Don’t Want to Spoil The Party” (Lennon/McCartney, Beatles For Sale, 1964)
Although it’s still a great album, it’s easy to pass over Beatles For Sale. The whole thing feels a bit fatigued (they’d just come off a massive U.S. tour to record the thing, so it makes sense) and the songs, for the most part, have a general lingering sense of bummerdom. But “I Don’t Want To Spoil the Party” is especially noteworthy for hitting that balance so key to pop music success: upbeat instrumentation with depressing lyrics. It’s a lean, bouncy, folk-tinged number clocking in at less than three minutes, complete with a storyline so entwined with being young and drunk and painfully in like. Paul’s vocals on the chorus are top-notch.
4.“Long, Long, Long” (Harrison, The Beatles/The “White Album,” 1968)
The White Album marks a huge period of growth for George Harrison as a songwriter. Fans had already seen a few moments of brilliance on earlier efforts (“Within You Without You,” etc.), but it’s in the sessions for this album that he produces some of his best songs ever (and also “Savoy Truffle”). With its low-to-the-ground guitars, celestial harmonies and Harrison’s stark lyrics holding it all together, it’s a truly haunting piece of music, right down to the bitter, unsettling vocalization and organ clashes at the end. And although casual fans may overlook this classic deep cut, it’s been covered by the likes of Elliott Smith and My Morning Jacket’s Jim James (performing as Yim Yames).
5.“Rain” (Lennon/McCartney, B-side to “Paperback Writer,” 1966)
It’s a little bit surprising that “Rain” isn’t discussed more—although it wasn’t nearly as successful commercially as its companion A-side, it was recorded during an important period in The Beatles’ history (right around the same time as Revolver), as they began to move away from taut, boy-meets-girl pop tunes and into the avant-garde territory that would eventually lead them to masterpieces like Sgt. Pepper’s (also noteworthy is the transition from The Beatles as a live band to a studio band). As Alan Pollack notes in Soundscapes, it’s amazing how, for all the technological experimentation on this track, the distortion and guitar sheen and the creepy backwards outro, it’s all structured around a simple “G, C, D” chord progression.
6.“Hey Bulldog” (Lennon/McCartney, Yellow Submarine, recorded 1968, released 1969)
Oftentimes in rock ‘n’ roll, great intros make for great songs, and so it is with “Hey Bulldog.” It’s that opening piano lick that gets you. It’s simple, it’s totally badass and it will remain in your head for days
7. “Every Little Thing” (Lennon/McCartney, Beatles For Sale, 1964)
The Beatles originally recorded “Every Little Thing” intending for it to be a single, and even now I’m not entirely sure why it doesn’t have the same place in the tribute act canon as lovey-dovey songs of equal or lesser value. Even with a song so simple and so brief, the Fab Four’s attention to detail is astounding. That “ba-bum” on the timpani right after “Every little thing she does” in the chorus, an echo of a heart pounding with ache for that special someone.
8. “Dig A Pony” (Lennon/McCartney, Let It Be, recorded 1969, released 1970)
As nonsensical as the verses to “Dig A Pony” are, the juxtaposition of them to the plainspoken, earnestly wailed chorus (“All I want is you”) may be what makes the song so great. Let It Be as an album is generally pretty underrated, even if about half the tracks, individually, are considered essentials. In the end, a blues heavy album was the perfect episodic marker—it’s a style that lends well to fatigue, to tension, to all the negative feelings that led to the eventual end of the Fab Four. Also, the guitar solo on this song is really nice.
9. “Baby, You’re A Rich Man” (Lennon/McCartney, B-side to “All You Need Is Love,” 1967)
Some of the best Lennon/McCartney collaborations, including “Baby, You’re A Rich Man,” resulted from taking an unfinished song from each party and combining them into one super-track (“I’ve Got A Feeling” is another example). The catchy-shouty chorus, the distinctive, swinging percussion, the weird, oboe-like noise in the intro (a clavioline, according to Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn) – it’s an excellent blend of pop accessibility and Haight-Ashbury oddity that merits a second listen, if not many more. The song took on a new context more than 40 years later, when it was used as the music for the end credits of the film The Social Network.
10. “It’s All Too Much”(Harrison, Yellow Submarine, recorded 1967, released 1969)
Not all The Beatles’ forays into psychedelia were successful, but from that first guitar charge and splashy organ riff, this one is tough not to love. When “It’s All Too Much” appears at the end of the film Yellow Submarine, the sinister Blue Meanies have become good and the fictional undersea commune of Pepperland is awash in a surrealistic landscape of bright, primary-colored flowers, psychedelic light sequences and full-on double rainbows, all the way. Even without the film backing it, the song feels like sonic finger-painting, and it is glorious.