The Most Influential Beatles Songs
A look at the most enduring songs by the Fab Four
by Chris Rowen
Trying to compile a list of the top ten most influential Beatles songs is not exactly uncharted territory. Plenty of such lists abound. But what does influential mean in the context of popular music? Is it songs that have influenced other artists? Does it refer to songs that changed the direction of the music industry as a whole? Or could it speak to the music's influence on the broader spectrum of culture? Certainly in the case of the Beatles, all of the above are applicable. Here's Infoplease's list with rationalizations.
"I Want to Hold Your Hand" (February 1964)
This is the big bang of British pop. It was the band's first No.1 hit in the U.S. The Beatles played “I Want to Hold Your Hand“ on their Ed Sullivan Show debut in February 1964, paving the way for everything that came after in pop music. The performance moved the epicenter of rock and roll across the pond and inspired English boys named Clapton, Page, Richards, Townsend, Beck and Waters to pick up their guitars and play.
"A Day in the Life" (June 1967)
Forget about “the chord.“ Much has been made about the final note of this masterpiece, a chord simultaneously struck on four pianos that many still consider the most memorable—and mesmerizing—song ending in pop music. What should be remembered is that “A Day in the Life“ is the seminal song on the Beatles' seminal album. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band held the top spot in album sales in the U.S. for 15 weeks yet it did not produce a No. 1 single. This was the dawn of album-oriented rock, and the dual structure of “A Day in the Life“ ended forever the need for conventional structure in pop/rock songs.
"While My Guitar Gently Weeps" (November 1968)
Prior to the release of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,“ George Harrison had already logged a few songwriting credits for the Beatles, notably “Taxman“ from the Revolver album, but it was this song from the White Album that finally solidified Harrison as a true peer to Lennon and McCartney. The musical artistry, the heart-aching lyrics and the outstanding solo work from Eric Clapton make this one of the best guitar songs of all time. From this point on, the Beatles were an honest-to-goodness, three-headed songwriting monster.
"Revolution" (August 1968)
The 1960's were in full swing when this angry, John Lennon screed hit the airwaves. Protest songs were already part of popular culture but were associated mostly with folk/rock artists like Bob Dylan, Donovan, and Buffalo Springfield. The introduction of “Revolution“ with Lennon's voice screaming over his blistering guitar work informs the world that rock and roll just became political, setting the stage for artists from John Fogerty to Rage Against the Machine.
"Yesterday" (August 1965)
"Yesterday" is the most covered song of all time. Both Willie Nelson and Boys II Men recorded versions of it. That's really all that needs to be said. Paul McCartney's graceful and haunting ballad of regret and melancholy is simultaneously complex and approachable, soft and searing. “Yesterday“ set a new standard in ballad writing for the singer-songwriter, one that may only have been equaled six years hence when Lennon penned "Imagine."
"Norwegian Wood" (December 1965)
Even though it begins with the lyric, “I once had a girl,“ this song exhibits the continuing maturation of John Lennon as a songwriter. Sweet and sardonic, this chronicle of a brief affair with an apparent stranger moves Lennon further from his early teenage love songs toward writing about the complexity of adult life and relationships. Musically the song breaks new ground with the introduction of George Harrison's sitar.
"Eleanor Rigby" (August 1966)
As the Beatles transitioned from live performers to an experimental studio band they repeatedly broke new ground. Whether or not it was a conscious decision, it was fitting that none of the band members played an instrument in “Eleanor Rigby,“ one of the first Beatles songs that doesn't speak from a personal perspective. (Almost every prior song contains the words “me,“ “my,“ or “I.“) This stark, poetic tale of depression and loneliness was completely unexpected and yet universally embraced when it was released. The Beatles were evolving into witnesses and storytellers, and the world was better for it.
"Hey Jude" (August 1968)
Everyone knows the story. Paul wrote "Hey Jude" for young Julian Lennon following the divorce of John and Julian's mother, Cynthia. While the song starts out with comforting lyrics and melody, it eventually moves into another realm as it builds to a chaotic and triumphant chorus in which McCartney seems to be trying to summon his own courage to fight on. Clocking in at over seven minutes, “Hey Jude“ features more than four minutes of Paul screaming over a chorus that consists of only the two-word song title and a bunch of na, na, nas. Yet the song stayed at No. 1 on the U.S. charts for nine weeks and was the most successful Beatles single of all time.
"Sun King," "Mean Mr. Mustard," "Polythene Pam," She Came in Through the Bathroom Window," "Golden Slumbers," "Carry That Weight," "The End" (September 1969)
Also referred to as side two of Abbey Road (there are actually three songs prior on side two), these seven mini-songs are seamlessly woven together to create one musical movement. Musically and lyrically the songs don't relate at all. The artistry is in how each song transitions to the next. The only pause is between "Bathroom Window" and "Golden Slumbers," and it needs to be there for the listener to reset the brain. These were pieces of previously recorded and discarded songs from earlier sessions that were masterfully mixed to produce something altogether brilliant—another example of the magic and genius that guided the Beatles.
"Let It Be" (March 1970)
The title track of the Beatles final album, this gospel-inspired piece is said to have come to Paul in a dream. The band was falling apart and the song seems to serve as Paul's way of coming to terms with the end of the era. The song starts out with just Paul's vocal and piano. As it progresses, the orchestration never reaches its full potential, with the accompanists taking turns more than playing together. Everything in the song seems to embody finality. George's guitar sound is clipped and compressed as if each note can't end too soon. Billy Preston's organ gives the impression of a church recessional. Unlike so many Beatles songs, there is no fade-out. The end of the song is just that.