I just finished a book that tells the backstory to every Beatles song (“The Beatles Lyrics,” ed. Hunter Davies) and so I’m an expert now. Here are the 24 best songs by the band that some may say were “more popular than Jesus,” along with at least one fact about each song, taken from the book or elsewhere.
24. “PS I Love You”
Paul said it wasn’t addressed, so to speak, to any particular love interest, which is sad for Dot Rhone, his girlfriend at the time he wrote the song while the band was on tour in Hamburg.
23. “Ob La Di Ob La Da”
The song may sound Jamaican, but the phrase is Yoruban, the West African people who chiefly in southwestern Nigeria. Paul learned it from his friend, the Nigerian conga player Jimmy Scott. Scott wanted a cut of the song, which Paul didn’t think was fair, but after Paul bailed Scott out of jail for failing to pay alimony, they called it even.
22. “Dear Prudence”
Prudence Farrow and her sister, the actress Mia Farrow, arrived at the Maharishi’s ashram in Rishikesh for a Transcendental Meditation course in 1968 before the Beatles arrived. Prudence was much more dedicated to her practice than the band members, spending most of her time in her cottage, meditating while they enjoyed themselves and wrote songs, including one about her. Prudence was a TM teacher for decades after.
Paul wrote the tune of this song in 1959 when he was still in high school and would go to art college parties and pretend to be French and play his guitar and sing faux French lyrics with the aim of getting girls. There’s no actual Michelle he knew.
Paul said the music was inspired by J.S. Bach’s Bourrée in E minor and the lyrics were inspired by the black civil rights struggle during the time he wrote it, in the late ‘60s.
19. “Yellow Submarine”
Paul wrote the song — with a little help from the singer-songwriter Donovan — with the intention of it being a children’s song, with basic words and easy to remember lines.
18. “Golden Slumbers”
The tune and first two lines are Paul’s but the title and almost all the other lyrics are lifted from an old lullaby that originated as a poem written in 1603 by Thomas Dekker.
17. “I’m So Tired”
John wrote it after three weeks in India, during which the meditation made it difficult to sleep.
16. “Martha My Dear”
Martha was Paul’s dog, an Old English sheep dog.
15. “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away”
The lyrics were written down by John in an address book that belonged to the chauffeur of his Rolls Royce, as it was the only paper available in the moment. There is speculation the song is about Brian Epstein, the Beatles’ longtime manager. Epstein was gay, and homosexual acts were illegal in the UK during his lifetime.
14. “With a Little Help From My Friends”
Originally titled “Bad Finger Boogie,” it was written by Paul and John, and sung by Ringo.
13. “Two of Us”
The “two” are Paul and Linda, written while they were on a vacation driving around Portugal, “sending postcards,” “wearing raincoats” and the rest of it.
12. “She’s Leaving Home”
The song, written by Paul, was inspired by a Feb. 27, 1967 news story he read in the Daily Mail about a 17-year-old girl who had been missing for a week after running away from home because, she later explained, she felt stifled by her parents. The girl, Melanie Coe, once met Paul and the others as a backup dancer on a TV show they performed on, but they didn’t remember her. Coe’s father is quoted in the newspaper story saying “I cannot imagine why she should run away. She has everything here.”
11. “A Day in the Life”
At the final recording, a nearly full orchestra — as heard on the song — wore formal evening dress. Also, the BBC originally banned the song for the assumed drug reference line: “I’d love to turn you on.”
10. “All You Need is Love”
The Beatles were commissioned by the BBC to write a song that aired in 26 countries and 6 continents simultaneously — the biggest live event program ever at the time. Paul and John both came up with song ideas, but John’s was chosen. The song was performed on June 25, 1967 with friends Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton and others in the studio, singing along.
9. “Eleanor Rigby”
A tombstone marking the grave of a woman named Eleanor Rigby is at St. Peter’s Church in Woolton, where John and Paul first met.
Paul woke up one morning with the tune in his head. Worried he overhead it someplace else he played it for others with made up lyrics. “Scrambled eggs, oh baby how I love your legs…” were supposedly the filler lines.
7. “Norwegian Wood”
This was the first Beatles song with a sitar and is also unusual in that it was an early Beatles song that lacked drums and chorus lyrics.
6. “Let it Be”
Inspired by a dream Paul had about his mother, Mary, who died when Paul was age 14. In the dream she was comforting, telling him not to worry, that everything will be ok.
5. “When I’m Sixty-Four”
Paul believes he was only 16 years old when he wrote it. The name “Chuck” in it is actually a Northern English term on endearment like “darling” or “dear.”
4. “The Ballad of John and Yoko”
The lyrics are mostly factually correct, including the line “Fifty acorns tied in a sack,” which refers to acorns the newlyweds sent to world leaders asking them to plant them for peace. Some actually did. Thirty years later, in 2009, Yoko sent acorns to 123 world leaders, including Barack and Michelle Obama.
3. “In My Life”
“It was the first song I wrote that was consciously about my life,” said Lennon, who started writing it as a biographical poem.
2. “Twist and Shout”
The most famous Beatles songs, even before Ferris Bueller, that’s not actually written by any of the Beatles. It was written by Phil Medley and Bert Berns in 1961, first recorded by the Top Notes, then the Isley Brothers in ’62 before the Beatles did a cover on their first album “Please Please Me” in ’63.
1. “Hey Jude”
Originally “Hey Jules,” as in Julian Lennon, with Paul starting to sing and write it while he visited the 5 year old whose father had just left his mother for another woman. As an adult, Julian says the song still gives him the shivers when he hears it.