Stories and Lyrics: The Beatles' Best
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Danny Boyle’s Beatles’ inspired fantasy Yesterday premiered in theaters earlier this year, and while it garnered average reviews and a modest box office take, the film’s tribute to the music and legacy of The Beatles stands atop a truly terrifying story premise:
What would the world look like without The Beatles?
The Beatles are some of the greatest songwriters of all time. Period! Their music challenged their contemporaries and inspired generations of future musicians and songwriters. When it came to their lyrics, there are few artists who told better stories and captured the heart of man better than John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr.
Therefore, in honor of the Fab Four and the stories they told, here is my list of the Top 10 stories and lyrics of The Beatles, what they say about us, and why they still speak to us today.
10. “When I’m 64” (1967)
One of the first songs recorded for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, “When I’m 64” was written by Paul McCartney when he was sixteen. When you’re young and have something (or someone) wonderful in your life, you hope it lasts forever. Time, however, reminds us that everything in this life is temporary, which may explain why the singer phrases most of his lyrics as a question. “When I’m 64” acknowledges the certainty of age but dreams of a future where we don’t have to face it alone.
9. “Revolution” (1968)
In a world that feels just as politically divided today as it was in 1968, so much of the message of “Revolution” hits hard even now. Lennon and The Beatles may have written “Revolution” in response to the Vietnam War, but even today, in the midst of our current cultural war, political uncertainty, and social media ranting, I think we all need a little reassurance (and hope) that “it’s gonna be all right.”
8. “Help!” (1965)
“Help!” perfectly articulates the transition between reckless youth and thoughtful adulthood. When you’re young, you think you can do everything on your own. You feel unstoppable and untouchable. As you get older you begin to recognize your own limitations and need for community. I’d put “With a Little Help from My Friends” in the same vein as “Help!”, both reminding us that we all need a little help along the way.
7. “The Long and Winding Road” (1970)
Featured in one of my favorite scenes in Yesterday, “The Long and Winding Road” might be one of Paul McCartney’s most personal and introspective songs. Written in the midst of tensions amongst the band, McCartney wrote this ballad to reflect on the journey of the band and the good times shared by all of them. As it turns out, with “The Long and Winding Road”, life would imitate art (or visa versa) as this was one of The Beatles last song released before they broke up.
6. “The Fool on the Hill” (1967)
“The Fool on the Hill” originally missed out my top ten, but after a few more listens, it found its way up the hill and onto this list. “The Fool on the Hill” introduces a character who can just as easily be the protagonist in a short story or play. This song is a character study in and of itself. In true Shakespearean fashion, “The Fool on the Hill” reminds us why sometimes the ones we mistake for fools are actually the wisest among us. Never judge a book by its cover.
5. “Penny Lane” (1967)
“Penny Lane” earns a spot on this list for painting such a vivid picture of a place that feels like home to all of us. I often use “Penny Lane” with my writing students to discuss world building and how to make setting come alive for your readers, or in this case, listeners. The Beatles proved, in writing about Penny Lane and all the sights and sounds of Liverpool, that home will always have a place in the art you create and the stories you tell.
4. “In My Life” (1965)
Similar to “The Long and Winding Road”, “In My Life” is a nostalgic look at all the people we’ve met and places we’ve come from that bring us to where we are now. Some people are gone, and some remain, but in our lives, everyone we encounter makes a difference in shaping who we are and become. “In My Life” is a tribute to those who’ve come before and offered a chapter or verse in our life.
3. “Hey, Jude” (1968)
“Hey, Jude” is an emotional masterpiece that transcends The Beatles own personal experience and pain in so many ways. Paul McCartney had written “Hey, Jude” comfort John Lennon’s son Julian after his parents’ divorce as John had just left Julian’s mom Cynthia to pursue a relationship with Japanese artist Yoko Ono. I’ve always felt that the story behind the song is just as powerful as the song itself, and no, Ed Sheeran, “hey, dude” is NOT a better song lyric. Even in the midst of our worst pain, we have the power to “take a song sad and make it better.”
2. “Yesterday” (1965)
Anyone who’s experienced the pangs of a breakup will understand the gloom and melancholy of Yesterday’s lyrics. When someone you love leaves you, you do feel like half a person and that there’s "a shadow hanging over you." It doesn’t matter what your mind or anyone else tells you. You may “know” that things will get better, but that doesn't mean you feel that way. Hope for the future seems unobtainable. All you have are the memories of yesterday and longing for things to be as they were. Paul McCartney captures the feelings of life without love better than anyone, which is why “Yesterday” continues to stand the test of time.
1. “Eleanor Rigby” (1966)
This is a rare instance where my favorite Beatles song is also objectively one of the most profound narratives ever written. Setting aside the musicality and innovative instrumentation of “Eleanor Rigby”, this song takes a deep dive into the topic of loneliness through the portrait of elderly figures Eleanor Rigby and Father McKenzie. Again, this is another example of exceptional character building but also thematic genius in how these stories are told. The details of Eleanor Rigby “picking up rice in the church where a wedding has been” or Father McKenzie “writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear” are absolutely devastating, and yet, we feel like we know these characters because they are everywhere around us. Lonely people are everywhere, but they never feel like they belong anywhere. This is a sad reality we've probably all considered. Where do all the lonely people come from and where do they all belong?
As artists, The Beatles composed great music, and as storytellers, they told the truth. Their songs speak to us, not just because they are written for us, but because they are written about us. We are found in all of them. And as we are reminded from Yesterday, the movie:
“a world without The Beatles is infinitely worse than a one with them.”
That’s all for now. I hope you love The Beatles as much as I do and enjoyed reading my list. As always, please hit the heart or subscribe to Perspectives off the Page for fresh content and updates.
Until Today, Storytellers