"Rock and roll springtime, take one"
After Grant McLennan died, a compilation was released of the best of his solo output alongside the best of his fellow Go-Between Robert Forster's solo stuff. Since on their actual albums as the Go-Betweens, they alternated tracks and it was always obvious who was responsible for which song, that fine record was as close a Go-Be fan was ever going to get to a new album.
This will never ever happen with the Beatles. The Go-Betweens are a semi-obscure Australian band with a cult following who were ripe for just such a release. The Beatles are an industry and too many different corporations own concerns in that industry to ever let anything so altruistic happen. But if only...here is a proposed ideal tracklisting for a Personal Best of the Solo Beatles.
1. Band On the Run (McCartney)
McCartney's solo work sounded more Beatlesque than that of his former badmates right from the start. But with the "Band on the Run" album he seemed to deliberately ape that sound to a certain extent, as if trying to suggest his own earlier work. More importantly, he seemed to have something of the adventurous spirit of the Beatles back. This track sounds like it was stitched together from three sketches or demos, each utterly distinct from the others. And yet they work together, somehow, the same way the mini-opera on the 2nd side of "Abbey Road" works so well. Not only that, but here the moments where the 3 different sections melt into one another are probably the most exciting parts of the song, particularly the way the chugging, rocky guitars of the 2nd movement are blown away by the anthemic horns of the third, then a wall of acoustic strumming seems to just slide cleanly into place. It makes for an epic, euphoric piece of McCartney pop, with about 5 more hooks than most songs could find room for, and is the ideal album opener.
2. Working Class Hero (Lennon)
And instantly, the sweetness of McCartney is balanced by some of Lennon's acidity. The best of Lennon's solo stuff is noticeably stripped down and simplified, and this is a great example of that, with just his fantastically expressive voice and an acoustic guitar. He achieved more commercial success with "Imagine" but thats a horrible song, its trite message utterly at odds with Lennon's sarcastic, sharp-tongued personality. The cynicism and determination to be truthful of this song seems a far more honest representation of the artist. Plus its simple guitar figure is remorseless in its repetition, constantly turning over itself, and the lyrics are unforgiving and angry and self-lacerating and perfect. Even at their most experimental, such a song could never have fit onto any Beatles album.
3. Ram On (McCartney)
"Ram" is my favourite of any of the Beatles solo albums, a perfect encapsulation of McCartney's talents. Every song - every single song - is ridiculously catchy and beautifully produced, bursting with ideas and odd little touches. Its about as far from "Plastic Ono Band" as its possible to get. Not just musically, either - lyrically its charicteristically lighter than any of Lennon's songs were, with a surfeit of nonsense songs about love. This song opens with a miniature flourish - a piano trickles in, then out, replaced by a ukelele and a single backbeat over which McCartney sings his silly lyrics- and just keeps adding them as it goes on. McCartney scats and beatboxes as a horde of backing vocalists coo a backing track, an electric piano features and he whistles the melody over the last few seconds. Its sublime. Nobody else could have done it and made it work so well.
4. My Sweet Lord (Harrison)
Harrison was sued - and lost - for plagarising the Chiffons "He's So Fine" with this song. Well, it works, the joyous melody combined with Phil Spector's arrangement to make this a rapturous pop song that - while obviously about Religion, with its Hindu prayers and chants in the lyrics -is never distractingly religious. The acoustic guitar backing and Eric Clapton's reedy, perfect lead are a lovely counterpoint to Harrison's cool vocal style. It has its own momentum and once its moving, when the drums kick in near the 2 minute mark, you don't want it to stop.
5. Instant Karma (Lennon)
Another song influenced by the Beatles flirtation with Eastern religion, this relies on Lennon's gift for an anthemic, rabble-rousing chorus, something he never lost. "We all shine on, like the moon and the stars and the sun" is inclusive and celebratory (if just a little too close to the empty anthem-by-numbers approach of Noel Gallagher, say) and Lennon screams it in his uniquely raw, impassioned style, but its the rhythm track that makes this song work so well. A big, full drum sound dominates every aspect of the production, huge cymbal and high hat washes filling every space, while a skeletal piano keeps pace with the bass and the slightly plodding vocal melody. Theres no guitar at all, that I can hear, which just makes it all sound that much more distinctive.
6. Photograph (Starr)
Token Ringo song, placed here because the Beatles always put the token Ringo song around this point. Altough, strangely enough, "Photograph" is better than a few of the Ringo-sung Beatles songs ("Octopus' Garden" and "Don't Pass Me By" to name a couple) and justifies its inclusion here on its own merits. Its a weird mix of pub rock and easy listening, held together by Ringo's low, casual vocal.
7. Live & Let Die (McCartney)
"When you were young and your heart was an open book..." When I was a little kid, and I loved all Bond movies, I loved some Bond themes way more than others. This was easily my favourite. I used to think that a Bond song lives or dies on the instrumental "dangerous" bit, the passage, often string-based, when the music becomes sharp and exciting and suggests the personality of the character and the film itself. "Live & Let Die", from the moment its massive refrain kicks in a bombastic horn-based section (arranged by George Martin), is almost all danger. The reggae middle eight is a nod to the films Carribbean setting and explodes at the end, the slow moments are lovely, the backing vocals ("you know you did, you know you did, you know you did") work brilliantly, and the melody is unforgettable. It just rocks. I love a couple of Bond themes more, but this still might be the best song any of the Beatles wrote after the band actually split.
8. Cold Turkey (Lennon)
This rocks too, albeit in a totally different way. That shrill, tense Lennon riff only lets up for the choruses, and the only other instruments are a bubbling bass and the drums. Until the guitar solo when a scalding Eric Clapton lead comes out of the other channel. Lennon lets the music signal his pain for the first half - his voice sounds tired, beaten, hurt, but the guitars are furious and agonised. Then, as the verses and chorus cease, he begins to scream, primally, horribly, almost in harmony with the wailing guitars. Its a harrowing listen.
9. I'd Have You Anytime (Harrison)
Co-written with Bob Dylan, musically this sounds entirely Harrison. Sultry and sexy, it glides along on the lightest acoustic guitar, with a delicate Harrison vocal seeming to plead with a lover. Its a low-key opener for Harrison's masterpiece, "All Things Must Pass", but its loveliness is reminiscent of "Sometimes" from "Abbey Road", which is high praise.
10. Jet (McCartney)
The kind of song only McCartney could really have written, with its verses that sound like choruses, its mix of a rocking backing track with doo-wop baking vocals, about four different irresistable hooks and lyrics I can't really make any sense of. Unlike much of the post-Beatles stuff produced by all four of them, you can imagine this fitting in nicely on a Beatles album.
11. Nobody Told Me (Lennon)
It opens with half a count-in, which is always a good sign. And Lennon sounds more interested and awake than he does on much of his solo stuff, where he often seems bored, going through the motions. Its heavy rhythmically, like most of the best of his later work, with a deep piano sound providing much of the ramshackle melody. The lyric is based on an old Lennon staple: case/reverse ("Everybodys running but no-one makes a move") as in "All You Need Is Love", with a wry, rueful vibe to the chorus, particularly his shrugged ad-lib : "Most peculiar, Momma".
12. Number 9 Dream (Lennon)
Followed by Lennon at his dreamiest and hippiest, evoking the Beatles, something he seemed determined to avoid throughout the 70s. He uses his softest register for the vocal, cooing it over the strings gliding in the background, the band playing quietly, backwards guitar rippling under the mantra of the chorus. After "Imagine". he seemed to let his cynicism take over in that decade, but this song is the idealistic, positive Lennon, turning to Eastern spiritualism, more in hope than expectation, you feel. And the melody is lovely, given just the right weight by the arrangement.
13. Let Em In (McCartney)
This starts with what sounds almost like a doorbell, then builds simply from the simplest foundation - piano, bass and drums are joined by harmonised vocals, a military drum, some brass, as the main theme gets a first run-through. McCartney varies the arrangement, dropping instruments for certain passages, reintroducing them at the expense of others later. Its as if he knows his melody is so good he can afford to play around with it. That means he gives little attention to the lyric, basically a list of people who might be at the door. But its such a great pop song that doesn't matter.
14. When We Was Fab (Harrison)
The latest song on this tracklist, this 1987 effort is also easily the most Beatlesque. Thats partly because it was (brilliantly) produced by Jeff Lynne, much of whose ELO career was spent trying to pay tribute to or outdo the Beatles (fear not, at least one of his songs will feature on my companion compilation of "Beatles Songs Not By the Beatles"). This has so many inimitably Beatles elements - the big Ringo drum sound, the string quartet's slashing over the verses, the solitary piano line on the chorus, the backing vocals, the dreamily psychedelic middle eight, the sitar-led coda - that it sounds almost like a Rutles parody. Thats before you consider the nostalgic lyric, with its 60s references, and the fantastic video, which is down below somewhere.
15. Isolation (Lennon)
Lennon at his most emotional, this is a devastating song. Just a piano, bass and drums carry the whole thing forward, through the slowly rising tension of the verses until the halting, angry denunciation of the chorus. It sounds bigger and more epic than it is because its so intense, so perfectly weighted.
16. Love Is Strange (McCartney)
Macca goes reggae, sorta. But its a strange version of reggae, corrupted by easy listening, utterly breezy and one of his poppiest songs. I haven't mentioned yet what a ridiculously great bass player he is, but thats never more evident than on this song. He makes the bass the lead instrument, really, but not in an R&B song, where its centrality is accepted anyway, but here, in a trifling, sweet little pop song. The lyric? Its about love, of course. In a greeting card kind of way.
17. I'm Losing You (Lennon)
I was really torn between this and the rehearsal version of "Bring On the Lucie", which was on the big Lennon box set from about a decade ago and featured perfectly over the closing credits to "Children of Men". This version of "I'm Losing You" is the one where hes backed by Cheap Trick, not the more spartan arrangement that was included on "Double Fantasy". This one rocks with a great raw guitar sound, and it features one of his most hurt, lost lyrics.
18. Junk (McCartney)
Both this and the next song were originally debuted as demos for the Beatles, and it sounds like one of the pretty little McCartney sketches that ended up scattered throughout the White Album. That fragile, faltering melody is beautiful, and he knew this, which is why its reprised in instrumental form on the "McCartney" album.
19. Jealous Guy (Lennon)
Probably the most obvious choice (alongside "Live & Let Die" and "My Sweet Lord") on this entire list. A more obvious record - and one with a far better chance of ever being released - would include "Imagine", "Mull of Kintyre", "Another Day", "Pipes of Peace", "Got My Mind Set On You", "Ebony & Ivory", "Say Say Say" etc. But I have problems with all of those songs. This is just a great song, with a mature, sober lyric and a great melody. Its got a whistled bit too, which is always great in a ballad...
20. - Maybe I'm Amazed (McCartney)
I love the way it starts, with the minor piano chords drifting in, and the way it effortlessly, organically surges from amazing passage to amazing passage, fluid and growing, his passion - so often suspect with the eager-to-please McCartney - obvious in every second. This is what a love song should sound like, frantic and excited and proud and awestruck by feeling. He sings it so well, too, screaming and yelling some of it in that great Little Richard voice he perfected in the Beatles' early years. Awesome, beautiful, and used over the closing credits of a Simpsons episode, always a sure sign of quality.
21. Momma Miss America (McCartney)
A McCartney instrumental, this is perhaps the grooviest thing any of them ever did, founded on a fluid bass sound and big drums and phased guitars. Then it breaks down halfway and becomes a monstrous - but always tuneful - guitar rave up. If you played it for somebody who didn't know it, they wouldn't have a clue who was responsible. Because it doesn't really sound remotely like anything else. You can hear him hooting deep down in the mix at one point, and it just sounds like hes excited, enjoying it.
22. Isn't It a Pity (Harrison)
This Harrison epic sounds more like Lennon or McCartney than George himself. Its probably one of the many songs he didn't want to demo for the others, tired of fighting for space on their albums, and instead held back for his first solo album. It builds and builds gloriously, the strings massing behind the band, the playing perfect. It sounds like the way an album should end.
Some YouTube goodies:
Maybe I'm Amazed
When We Was Fab
Nobody Told Me
Peter Serafinowicz does Ringo does Goldfinger