I know, the Beatles are so famous that there’s no such thing as an underrated song of theirs. But I actually wasn’t familiar with a lot of their early oeuvre until recently, and even on their well-known albums there are a few sleepers that don’t get the props they deserve. Here’s my list of underrated Beatles songs, one per album:
Please Please Me: “There’s a Place“. From the harmonica riff that sits unapologetically on a major seventh to the irregular phrase lengths to John’s characteristic ornaments in the lower harmony part to the lack of resolution at the end of the verse, this is a much more interesting song than you’d expect this early in the Beatles’ career.
With the Beatles: “Little Child“. Utterly conventional (though the middle eight is a middle six) and utterly charming. You can’t imagine those “I’m so sad and lonely” harmonies sung without a grins on their faces.
A Hard Day’s Night: “You Can’t Do That“. Shows what you can do with the twelve-bar blues. I love the sweatiness of this song, for lack of a better word. That quarter-note cowbell making the song ratchet along one powerful beat at a time instead of flowing smoothly; John’s hoarse reach for his high notes (e.g., “that boy again”); Ringo slightly rushing his reentrance after the stop-time in the refrain; the opening up of new harmonic territory with the V/vi -> vi (“gree-een”) in the bridge — it’s all great.
Beatles for Sale: “I’ll Follow the Sun“. This has been dismissed as being too glib, but it’s too perfect for that. The first line of the verse is a beautiful example of the musical device known as a sequence (listen to how the first eight notes form four ascending pairs). Paul sure could write a melody.
Help!: “The Night Before“. Another song I somehow missed for years. Again, nothing groundbreaking, just perfectly executed. The vi -> iv chord sequence (“Now today I find”) is particularly nice. “Makes me want to cry” is a typical great Paul high sung note. And such a tasty restrained guitar solo.
Rubber Soul: “Think For Yourself“. One of my favorite songwriting techniques: weird verses, perfect choruses (think “Senses Working Overtime” or “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic”). The chords (it takes a while to even identify the key) and phrase rhythm in the verses are really interesting, and I liked the chorus enough to base a song (“Think It Through”) on it. And I haven’t even mentioned the fuzz bass (both the tone and Paul’s awesome part) — they must have known it was great because it’s mixed so high.
Revolver: “Love You To“. Now we’re getting to the point where every song is so well known that it’s even harder to pick underrated songs. But here’s an Indian-themed song from George that doesn’t outstay its welcome, and also really attempts to be authentic in some way rather than just using cool timbres (I’m looking at you, “Norwegian Wood”).
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band: “Good Morning Good Morning“. What a superbly weird song. The verses can’t stay in the same meter for more than one measure at a time, but not in a “Look at me, I’m so weird” way; they’re just following the lyrics naturally without inserting extra beats to make everything come out to 4/4. Then the chorus just bounces between I and IV but swings into triplets. And the arrangement! You can barely hear the guitar over the horns, and Paul (I presume) rips off a great solo (pretty much stolen from “Taxman”, but we’ll ignore that). When my wife heard it for the first time, she said “This totally sounds like a Loud Family song”, and she’s right.
Magical Mystery Tour: “Baby You’re a Rich Man“. Another example of what you can do with just a couple of chords. They sit on G for so long that you’re convinced it’s the tonic, then finally relax both harmonically (into C, proving G to be the dominant) and melodically (the musical sigh of “What do you want to be”) in a great moment that has always influenced me. The chorus monomaniacally sits on one note before opening up into practically the only two syllables of harmony in the whole song (“too”), and the two chords dominating the tune are finally leavened with a little chromaticism (“you keep all your money”). And what made them think they could get away with that wheedling clavioline nose-fluting its way through the whole song? Criminally underrated, and the song that originally inspired me to make this list.
The Beatles: “I’m So Tired“. I was going to choose “Sexy Sadie” but I think it’s too well known, so I picked the other song with the I-VII-VI-V chord sequence. It’s awesomely lugubrious, and even the passionate chorus sounds like its boots are stuck in the mud. And at 2:03, it knows when to quit.
Abbey Road: “You Never Give Me Your Money“. Well, every song on this album is well known, but I think this one could stand even more recognition. Kicking off the side 2 medley, it’s basically a medley itself, and I can assure you that it’s hard to write a medley that doesn’t sound like just a bunch of unrelated pieces stitched to each other. Bouncing from style to style, it somehow hangs together. More than anything else on Abbey Road, this song makes mourn for the subsequent Beatles albums that never happened.
Let It Be: “Dig A Pony“. Endearingly random (the phrase rhythm in the verses is especially fun), with a killer swung unison riff that makes the song. It deserved a better context than this.
Your turn! What was I crazy for including, and what was I crazy for leaving out?