Naysayers like some of my co-bloggers notwithstanding, if you asked 1000 people the question “Who’s the best band of the rock era?”, the overwhelming response would be Those Four Guys From Liverpool (or Lau Gibelaigerilekua Gizonak Dutenek, as our Basque readers would say.) This is probably because of the fame (and catchiness) of their many hits, or how they seemed to embody the spirit of the 1960s, or the way they led rock from silly moon-June pop tunes to genuine art (kuidas nad viinud muusika rumal lugusid umbes kuu ja juunist tõeline kunst, as our friends in Tallinn might put it). What I want to talk about today is a less celebrated side of their talent, its versatility.

Pop : I Want to Hold Your Hand

The most obvious category the Beatles occupy is pop.  Try to forget how familiar this song is, and listen to it as if for the first time.  It is an almost perfect pop song, from the goofy lyrics, to the two-part harmonizing, to the wild jumps from note to note.  And there’s just enough lead guitar to make it clearly a pop song from the rock era.

Standards: Michelle

This, on the other hand is all heartfelt lyrics with just enough wordplay to keep it light, and the guitar turned down to where it could easily be replaced by piano or strings. Perry Como covered it. Sinatra or Bublé could too.

Power Pop: I Saw Her Standing There

Loud, raucous, full of wild energy. This could have been the Raspberries, if it hadn’t been 1963.

Country Rock: What Goes On

Jangly guitars,countryish chords. mournful lyrics. (OK, the scouse accents are jarring.)

Children’s Song: All Together Now

There are others, e.g. Yellow Submarine and Octopus’s Garden, but this combines simple lyrics, silly instruments (the Harpo Marx honking), and a gradual speedup that makes the ending almost frantic.

Psychedelia: Tomorrow Never Knows

Strange sounds, spooky lyrics, backwards guitars. No part of it fits with any other part, or stands still long enough to be understood. It’s a zen koan of a song.

Electric Blues: Yer Blues

Piercing guitars, piercing lyrics, piercing voice. The essence of the blues.

Metal: Hey Bulldog

Heavy piano-bass-drum base, with a scorching guitar break. Led Zeppelin might have done this, if they’d had a sense of humor.

Grunge: Helter Skelter

According to Butch Vig, Nirvana producer “I was talking about this whole grunge thing with a friend … when ’Helter Skelter’ came on the juke box. I said: ’Here’s the first grunge song, listen to it!’… So it wasn’t really anything new. I didn’t invent grunge. And Seattle didn’t either.”

Sure, you can find better grunge or blues bands, and perhaps even equally good pop bands. But, as Ovid might have said, “Nemo alius potest facere omnia.”

Mike Schilling

Mike has been a software engineer far longer than he would like to admit. He has strong opinions on baseball, software, science fiction, comedy, contract bridge, and European history, any of which he's willing to share with almost no prompting whatsoever.


  1. I’m trying to think of where two of my favorite Beatles songs fit on this list. “Norwiegan Wood” and “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” sound a bit like the pop folk that was popular in the mid-60s. With a sitar (in the case of “Norwiegan Wood”).

    • I want to say that the whole sitar thing that happened in the mid-60’s was the fault of the Beatles. Any other sitars you heard were riding on their coattails.

    • I’d call Norwegian Wood a straight pop song, with the sitar a bit of exotica (copied from the Kinks’ See My Friends, which sounds far more Indian). You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away is folkish, and in particular a tribute to Bob Dylan.

      • I can dig that.

        And “Norwegian Wood” doesn’t sound the least bit Indian, that’s for sure.

        • I almost compared “Norwegian Wood” to The Byrds in my first comment, probably because I was thinking of sitars.

        • “Raga Rock” seems to cover a wide swath, from rock songs that use a sitar as an exotic guitar (Norwegian Wood, Paint it Black), to pieces that adopt Indian scales or tones. George Harrison did a few of the latter with the Beatles (Love You To, Within You, Without You, Blue Jay Way), which I didn’t include in the post because, frankly, I don’t like them. There’s also a *very* obscure Beatles song called The Inner Light (it was the B-side of Lady Madonna), which sounds vaguely Indian and is quite pretty.

        • I think this particular track may be lacking an actual sitar (I think it’s sequencers and guitars), but Spacemen 3 sometimes played with raga-type forms in their pursuit of the perfect levitating drone.

          Someone will probably kick me for lumping “exotic Eastern-ish stuff” together, but Macha incorporated Indonesian gamelan into their stuff. I really like Forget Tomorrow.

    • I have had two Norwegian Wood stages n my life.

      Norwegian Wood Stage 1 began when I was about eight and I bought Rubber Soul. I loved the song; I thought it a really beautiful little love poem put to a stirring melody. This stage lasted for about twelve years.

      Norwegian Wood Stage 2 began when I was about 22 and I read something explaining that the song is about sexual frustration and arson, filled with black humor, and went back and re-listened to the song with a different set of ears. It blew me away that I had never picked up on any of it, and that at that stage of their careers the Beatles had put that on an album.

      • I imagine that had I been alive at the time, and a serious Beatles fan, then upon purchasing Rubber Soul, bringing it home, and placing it on the turn table I’d have heard “Drive My Car” and thought, “OK, this is that more mature version of the Beatles that I heard on Help!, but it’s still the Beatles. Then “Norwegian Wood” would have come on, and after a minute I’d have thought, “Wait, what is this? Something just happened.” A couple tracks later (“Nowhere Man”) would have made it clear that, after the 2nd track on Rubber Soul, there was no turning back.

        That’s why I like that album some much. I feel like something happened, subtle enough that if you only gave it a cursory listen you might miss it (thinking “Drive My Car” and “Michelle” are just more mature versions of the Beatles you heard on Meet the Beatles, say), but if you really listen to it, you can’t help but realize that The Beatles are no longer those Beatles, and in retrospect, we know that things were never the same, not just for The Beatles but for rock and pop in general.

        • Well, no 🙂

          The version of Rubber Soul that came out in the US was missing both Drive My Car and Nowhere Man (as well as What Goes On and If I Needed Someone), and added the ballads I’ve Just Seen a Face and It’s Only Love from the UK Help album. [A] The impression it gave was the the Beatles had abandoned rock for soft, melodic, folky pop.

          A. The CDs are all [B] based on the UK albums; to recall the way the US albums were hacked together, you need to be
          1. old, and
          2. a Beatles fanatic.

          B. OK, except for Magical Mystery Tour, which wasn’t an album in the UK.

          • I didn’t get the album in ’65 when it was released, but it was the default thing available in the US until the CDs came out in ’87.

          • Mom had the UK copy of Rubber Soul. The first time I heard it elsewhere, I was totally messed up

  2. The Beatles were as much a product of technology as versatility. They were among the first to use the studio itself as an instrument.

  3. Did the Beatles intend for “All Together Now” et al to be for children? I’ve seen all of them work wonders with children and they definitely include many of the elements you’d include in a song for children, but I never knew they were specifically written for them. I just figured they were indulging their more playful sides and happened upon songs fitting for children. But what do I know? I like Nickelback.

  4. I have trouble hearing Hey Bulldog as heavy metal; something about the piano pushes it toward the rock/pop end of the spectrum.

    It’s painful to listen to that dadadadadadada rhythm, makes my arms ache in sympathy.

    And the drums sound too thin; but this may have more to do with recording technique then actual drum sound.

  5. I think you’ve hit on the thing that makes the Beatles so much better than the Beach Boys, with whom they were competing to see who could come up with the most innovative pop. The Beach Boys did some crazy stuff, and Pet Sounds is a great album, but no matter how innovative they got, they were still making surf pop.

    I guess they just weren’t made for those times.

    • Totally agree about Pet Sounds (one of the greatest albums, IMHO) but the general limitations of the Beach Boys, though I always thought their closest peer was generally considered to be The Rolling Stones?

      The thing that amazes me about The Beatles has always been that they made maybe 8-10 albums of which any one is easily as good or better than the best album nearly every other band of the Rock era put out. Their musical evolution and experimentation went a long way toward that being the case.

      • These albums were largely (for the second half of them, entirely) original material, and they generally put out two of them a year. I can’t think of anyone else even close.

  6. I think the Beatles were able to be this versatile partially out of talent and also because they were at the right place in terms of music.

    It is cliche to say but the nature of music and pop culture really changed in the 1960s and there was a great loosening up. For better or for worse, the Beatles probably needed to be in suit and tie during their first TV appearances but by decades end rock bands were allowed to dress in a more t-shirt and jeans or rock star costume kind of way. Less clean cut, rougher.

    Though early Beatles stuff was probably considered outdated and square by the time the late 1960s rolled around.

    • I think it’s more a matter of Paul being an extremely versatile and incredible musician & songwriter, and the rest of them just riding his coat-tails.

  7. Moreso than my spouse, I have never cared for the Beatles. Now when I hear them my response is viscerally negative. I recall the music store coworkers who sang the praises of the Beatles but never played them in the store (we could choose music from any genre/time). I found this curious but wasn’t about to question them and possibly encourage them to do so. There was so much music I preferred to listen to. The impression I get is that lots of people reflexively say the Beatles based on the hype and their popularity without having listened to a good portion of their music.

    I tried to like them, really I did. I’ll even admit enjoying some of their songs as a child but once I stopped listening to just radio music, they just didn’t make the cut. While I respect the Beatles musical influence and desire to challenge themselves in various genres, I derive no pleasure listening to them. I could happily live the rest of my life without ever again hearing a Beatles song. I suspect (although maybe not here) I am not alone but I’ll run and duck for cover anyways.

    • Over the last decade, I’ve probably heard more Beatles songs as jazz then as The Beatles.

      Funny thing with their composition: They make awesome standards for improvising over. I presume this is because they lend themselves to harmonic complexity while being so well known that you don’t loose the form no matter how out you go.

      • zic, have you ever looked at this? It’s a musicological analysis of each of their songs (by someone who’s both a PhD in music theory and a big fan of theirs. I can usually follow about half of what he writes.

        • Thanks for that. I skimmed; and he does a good job showing why many of the seemingly ‘simple’ compositions are not, in fact, simple; they take standard forms and experiment with them in lots of different ways.

          Last night, you put up the piece on the news reporter reporting on how to understand the tricks of the form; I would argue (without any education or research or reading to back me up, so bear with me if I use odd language to explain a familiar concept) that form in numbers of media shape our expectations and experience. If you’ve had children, you understand the form of a 32-page picture book. The forms of a shortstory, a novel, a news article, a blog post, a 12-bar blues, a 16-bar country-rock etc. etc. etc. are all familiar and help us understand and relate to the particular work we’re consuming.

          The Beatles were great at bending the standard music forms; at breaking the rules in lots of little ways; much of what his guy is analyzing is about they did that. And The Beatles’s music was played so often, and as you point out, they worked in so many genres of form, that their work began to comprise a new set of rules; I’d guess their innovated forms are built into the newer digital sites that do this type of analysis as standard. Which leads back full circle: Beatle’s tunes as standards.

          This reminds me of the critiques my husband wants me to give him after a gig. (Mine are much simpler, I’m listening live, and don’t have the benefit of playback. I do sometimes take notes.) It’s listening to understand what works, what doesn’t, how something might be new and different from what’s been done before. It requires active listening, not just hearing. It’s why I can’t do anything else when I listen to music that really interests me, and why I often try to draw a distinction between listening and hearing, and listening/hearing musically vs. verbally.

          • Disclaimer: much as I’d like to take credit for it, the awesome post about TV news was Trumwill’s.

          • I beg forgiveness! And Trumwell’s too.

            I think I associated it with you because you’re vying for class clown, no?

    • you are not alone, the vocals have always sounded kinda weird to me.

    • Sorry so late to this post.

      my response is viscerally negative…I derive no pleasure listening to them.

      The latter sentence describes my own feelings better than the former – it’s not visceral antipathy, I don’t mind hearing them; but, they don’t move me.

      I think the issue is twofold: one, their many innovations and titanic influence have been so thoroughly absorbed, imitated and propagated that having an opinion on them seems like having one on water, or air – these things are great, nay vital, since without them so many other good things would not exist – but it’s very, very easy to take them for granted as simple background conditions. No one ever says that their favorite drink is “water”, or that their favorite smell is “air”. So this could just be a function of my age.

      The second issue is undoubtedly my own cussed contrariness. I have gotten a lot better than I was in college, when I used to actively tweak Beatles fans at every possible opportunity – even then, I didn’t really mind the band, as much as I minded being constantly told how great they were. But even now there is still some part of me that occasionally bristles at their overwhelming presence.

      Part of being an obsessive pop/rock fan is rooting for the underdog; the unjustly unrecognized; the unfairly forgotten (is there a similar phenomenon in sports fandom? Is it a little – off, somehow, for your favorite team to be, say, the Yankees?). The Beatles make it look/sound too easy. Perfection is a little boring.

      Of the tracks here, the two that I like best are “Helter Skelter” and “Tomorrow Never Knows” (“Helter Skelter” I have known for many years, but I actually only heard “Tomorrow” for the first time when it was used on “Mad Men”, though I was somewhat familiar with it from some 1990’s tracks that imitated it).

      I’ll probably at some point pick up Revolver, just because I have to start somewhere, right? (plus, I liked “Eleanor Rigby” when I was a kid).

      • Also, I love the Beatles, but I have a viscerally negative reaction to Lennon by himself. I don’t know why that is, though. Maybe hearing too many people tell me how wonderful Lennon was, as a kid.

        • I’m not crazy about most of his solo work. Instant Karma is the kind of anthemic that I enjoy. From Plastic Ono Band I find Mother and Working Class Hero moving [1], and God breathtaking. There’s some good stuff on Imagine (not the title song so much). Very little else works for me. (Watching the Wheels Go Round from Double Fantasy is good, but less so than the Dylan song it copies from.)

          I’m very puzzled by the fact that I enjoy Beatles stuff so much, with relatively few exceptions, but not their solo work, with very few exceptions.

          1. OK, in general rich, successful and famous people shouldn’t whine so much, but the guy lost his mother twice by the time he was 18. Cut him some slack.

          • Is it lame that I really like Harrison’s All Things Must Pass?

          • I think the only Lennon song I genuinely like is “God,” which I think may be the most cathartic song I’ve ever heard (“I don’t believe in Beatles!”).

            I like some of Harrison’s stuff. I admit that some of McCartney’s 70s stuff gets stuck in my head. And I like some covers of those songs too, though I’m not so sure that I like it as much as I remember it.

            By the way Mike, I meant to say thank you for the post. I’ve spent the last couple days listening to the Beatles, which I hadn’t really done in a while. It’s been nice.

            Now I just need one of you to write on hip hop.

          • George is a different case. He was a second-rate song-writer until some great ones fairly late in his Beatles career (While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Something, Here Comes the Sun), so his early solo albums arguably had some of his best work. Though it hasn’t aged well for me.

          • Now I just need one of you to write on hip hop.

            Chris, I smell a GUEST POST with your name on it.

      • Is it a little – off, somehow, for your favorite team to be, say, the Yankees?

        In the same sense that it’s a little off for Donald Trump to be your favorite inspirational speaker.

        • Wait, I just compared the Beatles to the Yankees; then you compared the Yankees to Trump – so via the transitive property, we can determine that IS sort of a “mop” on his top….

          • Let’s think about this. Would you clean your kitchen floor with Donald Trump’s head? If not, which would you be more worried about contaminating?

      • And Revolver is another one where the American version was misleading. It was missing all the Lennon tracks except She Said, She Said and Tomorrow Never Knows, which gave the impression that John was recording from a rehab center.

  8. I want to toss this out there, because the influence isn’t always heard.
    It’s obvious in the vocal harmonies, and often elsewhere, that King’s X was heavily influenced by the Beatles.

    I want to talk a little more about technique.
    “Blackbird” was a very influencial song, as far as I can tell. Maybe there were some other folk artists around that were doing the same thing (not sure); but when the Beatles did it, it took on a new aura of cool.
    The chords are all made with open D & G strings. The other notes are on the B & A, except for the low G on the low E string (a result of walking the bass line down; you hear it as the first notes in the piece, iirc).

    Doesn’t sound like much, but “Beneath, Between, & Behind” by Rush is played in the same way (sorta; that one the G is muted with the fingers from the left hand). The notes in the chords from that opening riff are on non-sequential strings; the D & B.

    The use of open strings is chords higher up the neck is all over the place in Rush.
    Take an open C chord, slide it up until your index finger is on the 6th fret, strum upward (from highest string to lowest), and you’ve got “Tears.”

    “Blackbird” is a very unique piece.

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