songs we were singing
As John Lennon playfully noted in a song he wrote for Ringo Starr, the Beatles were “the greatest show on earth.” So true. And in the 45 years since the Beatles officially called it quits, appreciation of their songs has grown — across the generations. It isn’t hard to imagine a family reunion where the great-grandmother fondly remembers “Love Me Do” and “If I Fell” from her children’s Beatles albums while the great-grandson is listening to “Hey Bulldog” on his iPhone. Yes, it’s the act we’ve known for all these years; the act that entertains and intrigues — the act we wish to learn more about. Helpful in that regard is the new book, Songs We Were Singing by Kit O’Toole, a writer well-versed on all things Beatles.
Subtitled Guided Tours through The Beatles’ Lesser Known Tracks, O’Toole’s work delves deeply into overlooked songs by the greatest act in the history of recorded music. The Beatles’ output guaranteed a splendid time for all, as they recorded 201 songs for release over a period of 7 years and 2 months (March ’63 – May ’70). And despite all the vigorous attention given their albums and singles, some of their best material still eludes full consideration. O’Toole does an excellent job in pointing out what she believes slipped under the radar, while also covering the vital aspects of the lesser known tracks.
A Contributing Editor to Beatlefan magazine and author of the Deep Beatles columns for the site, Something Else!, O’Toole possesses a genial authority when handling her subject. One may not agree with all her choices. For example, “Eight Days A Week” is deemed a lesser-know track while its flip side, “I Don’t Want To Spoil the Party” isn’t. But overall, O’Toole’s selections are spot-on. By focusing on great but neglected songs such as “I Want To Tell You,” “Hey Bulldog,” “I Call Your Name,” and “You Won’t See Me,” O’Toole reinforces the great truth about the Beatles: they were entertainers and artists. Their melodies are not only catchy and irresistible, but also complex and smart. Their music draws you in and the intricate paths taken in creating the music keep you in. Even when completing the Please Please Me album in just one day, it was obvious the Beatles weren’t just recording songs – they were building songs. Also, especially on their original material, the Beatles raised the bar several notches higher with sharp and observant lyrics.
And finally, the Beatles — all four of them — could really sing. John Lennon and Paul McCartney were great singers at the beginning; then they got better. Both George Harrison and Ringo Starr developed fine vocal chops as well. In fact, many of the Beatles’ songs would be far less spirited were it not for the harmonizing of Harrison. It was his and McCartney’s back-up vocals on a 1964 Beatles track, “You Can’t Do That,” that O’Toole calls an “essential ingredient” of the song.
The call and response motif, particularly when Lennon sings the line about how he will leave her, lets the other two function as a Greek chorus — underscoring important aspects of the tune. Listen to their harmonies on the words “green” and “seen, ” as well as the phrase “laugh in my face.” Their voices are found high in the mix, serving as exclamation points, dramatizing the rage and anguish of the narrator. Harrison and McCartney repeat the title words during Lennon’s guitar solo, the repetition adding to the overall aggressive tone of the lyrics and sound.
The overview of “You Can’t Do That” is similar to the approach taken throughout Songs We Were Singing. 59 Beatles songs are explored in manifold ways by O’Toole, but in the end, readers are brought to the same conclusion: the Beatles were a band of great individual talents who often found their collective genius was most evident in blending each others’ strengths.
For those of us who still listen to the Beatles often and intently, many of the songs O’Toole has determined as lesser-known are considered favorites. During that first wave of Beatlemania in 1964, such hits as “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “She Loves You,” and nearly a half-dozen others were ubiquitous. Though many Top 40 radio stations were “Beatles Headquarters,” it was mostly the Beatles’ hit singles saturating the airwaves. Given that in 1964, six Beatles albums* were released in the United States, a lot of material was overlooked by the DJs. After all, there were only so many hours in the day, and the DJs were committed to playing songs by dozens of other acts as well. Therefore many great Beatles tracks were mostly heard at home — classic Beatles material, lesser-known or not. In Songs We Were Singing, O’Toole includes essays on 14 Beatles tracks featured on the ’64 U.S. albums: songs that revealed the greatness the group had already achieved and foretold the greatness ahead of them.
Two of the tracks O’Toole seems most impressed with are from the Beatles’ debut album, Please Please Me, released in the U.K. in March ’63 (most of the album’s tracks were included on Introducing The Beatles, issued the following January in the U.S. by the Vee-Jay label). The two songs, “Misery” and “There’s A Place” were overlooked then and continue to be. In fact neither song was included in the 1962-1966 compilation released by Capitol Records in the spring of ’73. Still, “Misery” and “There’s A Place” have not only retained their freshness, but also amplify how far ahead of the pack the Beatles were, even before the first “yeah, yeah, yeah.” “Misery,” which Lennon said was “kind of a John song more than a Paul song, but it was written together,” was unlike anything else released in the world of pop music in those days. Rollicking along to producer George Martin’s piano, “Misery” has a Gospel/R&B feel. Lennon’s vocals on the heart-on-my-sleeve song are raspy and direct, perfect for the situation the singer describes. But all the while, O’Toole asserts we should pay closer attention, as “the rapid tempo, chiming guitars and cheerful vocal style all suggest the Beatles are performing their rather depressing lyrics with a sly wink.”
O’Toole captures the essence of “There’s A Place” as well. Again, we have a beautifully structured song that not only gets high marks for its melody and vocal performances, but also for its contemplative lyrics. Perhaps thematically inspired by “Somewhere,” the Bernstein-Sondheim composition from West Side Story, “There’s A Place ” is mostly Lennon’s song, naturally devoid of Broadway trappings. “There’s a Place” “was my attempt at a sort of Motown, black thing,” Lennon told Playboy interviewer David Sheff in 1980. That makes sense, as does conjecturing what the Impressions or Sam Cooke could have done with the song. Sam Cooke and the Impressions’ Curtis Mayfield: they could swing, sway and light up a place as their prescient songs took hold, lingering like the earnest words of a trusted friend. You could dance and think at the same time.
And so it is with the Beatles’ music. As McCartney told his biographer, Barry Miles, “we were getting a bit more cerebral.” “There’s A Place” focuses on a common plight. Lennon’s every man is deeply in love but sometimes he feels blue and unsettled. So he goes to a peaceful place: his mind. There he focuses on what makes him happy, putting his sorrows aside. In the Playboy interview, Lennon stated the song “says the usual Lennon things. ‘In my mind there’s no sorrow…'” O’Toole writes of the words in the song’s bridge that Lennon referred to, declaring his view “emphasizes the narrator’s happiness, that sadness does not exist in his mental space.”
In other words, do not feel sorry for this character — just leave him alone with his thoughts, and he will never be lonely. Lennon would return to this general theme repeatedly, celebrating the value of contemplation and seemingly doing nothing in later tracks like “I’m Only Sleeping,” “Tomorrow Never Knows,” and Watching The Wheels,” among many others.
In a very direct but discerning way, Kit O’Toole gets to the heart of why the Beatles’ songs remain so profoundly embedded in our culture, 45 years since the group’s sad and untimely break-up. O’Toole covers the basics as to who played and wrote what, as well as behind-the-scenes information on what inspired the songs and how ingeniously they were brought to life. Beauty and resourcefulness coming together. Songs We Were Singing provides great insight for new fans and for those who knew from the start the Beatles were “guaranteed to raise a smile” and much more.
*One of the albums was the soundtrack to A Hard Day’s Night, which also included incidental music from the film not performed by the Beatles.
Image: A composite photo created for LikeTheDew.com from a promotional poster for the movie, "The Greatest Show on Earth" and a promotional photo of the Beatles.