The Beatles’ most underrated songs

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?

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7 Responses to “The Beatles’ most underrated songs”

  1. Dan Bruno says:

    I don’t know if I can reasonably call it underrated, but “You’re Going to Lose That Girl” from Help! is one of my favorite songs in the whole Beatles oeuvre; it’s like doo-wop from an alternate universe. The sneaky modulation from the E major verse/chorus to the G major bridge, and then back via a bII chord, is one of the coolest harmonic tricks I’ve ever heard in a pop song.

  2. S says:

    “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” from Srgt. gets no love, but it’s excellently surreal and celebratory. I was disappointed when it wasn’t in Rock Band: Beatles.

  3. dfan says:

    Yeah, both of those modulations are awesome, jumping off of a chord in mid-sequence without waiting for the sequence to end. Going to the bridge it should be F#m – D – G – B – E but they just stop on G and decide to hang out there for a while! The modulation back is a pretty understandable G – C – F – B – E (treating the F as a Neapolitan) only they skip the B entirely. In both cases they don’t even bother to round it out by extending the other chords to make the hypermeter reasonable; they just leave out those measures entirely.

  4. dfan says:

    I think of “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” as being pretty popular, but that may be largely due to liking it a lot as a kid and assuming everyone else did too.

    I did try to use “not in The Beatles: Rock Band” as a criterion in picking this list. I think the only ones that broke the rule were “Good Morning Good Morning” (which was kind of a weird choice for the game, not that I’m complaining) and “Dig A Pony” (which I bet is in the game largely because we needed a bunch of Let It Be songs to make a good rooftop concert).

    And at least Mr. Kite is out as DLC now.

  5. Derek Slater says:

    You’ll kill me for saying it, but I never connected with the Beatles.

    Which made this particularly interesting to me — the other day I was speaking to a friend who is a professional musician. Bass mostly. Has played with various name-brand acts. I asked him about great bass players and he said Paul Mc was actually remarkable in his awareness of what everyone else in the group was doing. Paul never supplied too little and never too much, my friend said.

    For what that’s worth.

  6. Aaron says:

    I never got the Beatles until a few months ago, so I mostly don’t know what’s underrated (as opposed to just “not universally known”). That said, “Hey Bulldog” is the song that sparked my interest in them, and of the 20-30 people I’ve played Beatles Rock Band with, not one has copped to knowing it well enough to sing along. So I’m pretty sure it’s underrated. Though obviously, I understand why Yellow Submarine didn’t get a slot on your list.

    (Regarding me not getting the Beatles until this fall: nice job, Harmonix. I now feel like an authentic member of my culture.)

  7. OMJoe says:

    Thanks for your insight on this topic–Been a fan since I was a wee-one.
    Some of my favorite ‘obscurities’ have to be:
    * Old Brown Shoe–B-side to Ballad of John +Yoko–I’m so glad it made it to RockBand! I still get chills when I hear that opening honkey-tonk piano. Ringo’s skills are featured prominently, and the solo is probably one of the hottest in the entire catalog–totally raw and in your face, and I’m sure a nod to Clapton. The lyrics are very imaginative in this one–“For your sweet top lip I’m in the queue”–totally cool!

    *Yes It Is–Perfect harmonies-pure, clean, soul-lifting. While the volume-tone pedal was a *very* new effect, it could’ve very easily been over-used. Instead it’s used as a flavor, rather than a meal. The harmonies are deceptively complex, and not the simple triads that everyone thinks–Although it’s a little hard to differentiate, identify George’s part (middle vocal)–When I figured it out, I would along with it in the car–and my wife swears I re-sampled the volume on the CD, because since then, she can’t hear anything but George! 🙂 For a 45 year-old song to still have impact–amazing.

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