You can have lyrics…but without a melody…it’s poetry.
You can have rhythm…but without a melody…it’s just a beat.
Of course lyrics and rhythm are important aspects in music, but the only essential ingredient is melody. A song without lyrics is still a song…an instrumental…and you can vary the rhythm.
There’s an excellent book Songwriters On Songwriting by Paul Zollo.
He interviews over 60 songwriters. One of the more fascinating revelations is that songwriters tell him some of their best songs come to them almost like the universe is presenting them with a gift. Three famous examples of this are the songs “Yesterday”, “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “You’ve Got A Friend”. Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, and Carole King say the songs came to them in dreams. Plus, so many times songwriters have said…”It practically wrote itself”.
So who is the best melody writer? Paul Simon says it’s Paul McCartney. Let’s check the evidence. The most recorded song of all time is “Yesterday”. For years, the second most recorded song was “Michelle”. A recent search of the top ten most recorded songs found “Yesterday” still at #1 with “Eleanor Rigby” now at #2. Also in the top ten are “And I Love Her” and “Blackbird”. No other songwriter has more than one song in the top ten. John Lennon has “Imagine”, and then there are older classics like “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” and “Summertime”.
Here’s a playlist of some of McCartney’s Beatles songs:
I Saw Her Standing There
All My Loving
Can’t Buy Me Love
And I Love Her
Things We Said Today
I’ll Follow The Sun
We Can Work It Out
I’ve Just Seen A Face
For No One
Here There And Everywhere
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
She’s Leaving Home
When I’m Sixty-Four
The Fool On The Hill
Back In The U.S.S.R.
Two Of Us
The Long And Winding Road
Let It Be
While nearly everyone knows The Beatles were the top Billboard singles artists of the 1960’s, it might come as a surprise that Paul McCartney was the top singles artist of the 1970’s (he was mistakenly listed as #2 earlier). Sir Paul has had 37 top 40 hits, 9 number one singles and 8 number one albums. McCartney opens himself to criticism at times for less than poignant lyrics, but no one questions his melody writing.
A playlist of some of McCartney’s best solo songs:
Maybe I’m Amazed
Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey
Live And Let Die
Band On The Run
Venus & Mars/Rockshow
Listen To What The Man Said
Silly Love Songs
Mull Of Kintyre
With A Little Luck
No More Lonely Nights
My Brave Face
Hope Of Deliverance
This Never Happened Before
Today, there’s a lot of criticism about the lack of great melodies, and of course Rap is often devoid of melody altogether. The trend in Pop music is to have teams of writers manufacture the hits. This results in some interesting arrangements that can have “hooks”, but most do not have the classic flow of great melodies. Maybe there needs to be a little less teamwork and commercial intent, and a little more soul and inspiration.
To truly understand the impact and amazing musical development of The Beatles, you had to be there.
Sorry, but discovering them fully formed after they had made their progressions, after they had written all those songs, and after you’ve heard more recent recordings, just doesn’t cut it. You can historically and intellectually appreciate what happened, but that’s not feeling it happening.
Nothing replaces first hearing The Beatles as they were hitting the American airwaves…that excitement for something so different from the Teen Idols and the smooth pop music of the early ‘60’s. Not that there weren’t good singers and songs, but it was only slightly rock & roll at that time. In early 1964 The Beatles broke bigger than any act ever. Just the impact from their appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show was enough to encourage so many future music stars.
It all could have simply been an exclamation point in music history, except for two things. One, The Beatles became amazing songwriters, and two, they were great musical innovators. You needed to hear it as it happened. There is no replacement for being in your room, closing the door, and dropping the needle on Rubber Soul, then Revolver, then Sgt. Pepper, and through the remainder of their albums as they were released.
Rubber Soul wasn’t any kind of shock. It was a maturing of their songwriting, and simply a high quality album. The American version didn’t even have any singles. But we all know “Norwegian Wood”, “Michelle”, “In My Life”, “I’m Looking Through You”, etc. Of course the British version included “Nowhere Man”. Plus, on the same day the album was released, “We Can Work It Out” & “Day Tripper” were released as a two-sided single. Those seven songs would make a nice side of a greatest hits collection.
The first “What are they doing?” release of The Beatles was Revolver. Why does the album start with that odd count-in at the beginning of “Taxman”? One interviewer even asked them if they meant to do that. Nothing previous could have prepared fans for “Tomorrow Never Knows”… the one with John’s voice through a Leslie organ speaker, and the lyrics “Turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream”. You couldn’t play that one for your parents. Instead, you played “Here, There, And Everywhere” to try to get them to understand the musical quality of The Beatles.
Revolver, along with two tracks that should have been on the album, “Paperback Writer” and “Rain”, were filled with studio innovations…backward guitars, backward vocals, tape loops, odd microphone placement, and so much more. Great melodies, lyrics and arrangements abound…”Eleanor Rigby”, “For No One”, “I’m Only Sleeping”, “Here There And Everywhere”, and basically the whole album. It’s easy to see why many fans list this album as their favorite.
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band brought even more wonder. Crowd noise, then The Beatles calling themselves another band, the title song introducing the singer of the next song, and then flowing right into it! That was new. What, no silence between “With A Little Help From My Friends” and “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds”? And it turned out all of the cuts lacked the few seconds of separation that was normal on albums.
To understand the difference in popularity between The Beatles and any other artists, look at the songs on the album.
Do you know them? Most people of the era will recognize almost all of the song titles even though there weren’t any singles released from the album. No other artists were so popular that the public knew so many of their album cuts. Not even close.
The White Album, released a year later, was another change. It contained just about every style of music. It was probably named The Beatles, because it represented nearly all of the group’s musical influences, and showed how versatile they were…Rock & Roll, Blues, Country, Music Hall, Ballads, Pop, Hard Rock, Humorous, Experimental, Acoustic, Electric, Orchestral, etc. When The White Album was released, a Lincoln, Nebraska FM station, KFMQ, played the whole thing. As two DJ’s commented on the album, they said they didn’t know how The Beatles even came up with a running order, because the songs were so different from one another.
The next two albums, Let It Be and Abbey Road (which The Beatles recorded last), were released in the opposite order from which they were recorded. Let It Be is often looked upon as a lesser album, but would an album with “The Long And Winding Road” (#1), “Two Of Us”, “Across The Universe”, “Get Back” (#1), and “Let It Be”(#1) be considered a “lesser” album for anyone else?
Abbey Road is a favorite of many fans, especially those who came later. It has two of George Harrison’s best songs “Something” and “Here Comes The Sun”, plus Lennon’s “Come Together”, and the side two medley, which is mostly McCartney. “Carry That Weight/The End” is a great way for The Beatles to finish…trading guitar licks, Ringo’s excellent drumming, and a final message about love.
The quality of their album cuts from their 7 years (1963-1969) of recording together would make a fantastic greatest hits double-album. No other artist could possibly put together anything like it from their own non-singles. Here’s a playlist of songs not released as singles during The Beatles era. (Click or zoom to enlarge.)
Please look over the above list for any songs you think would have made good singles, or that you thought were singles.
Oh, and The Beatles had 46 singles in the Billboard Top 40 chart during their active years. If you watched that chart in the ‘60’s, you saw 21 of those hits make it all the way to number-one…a record.
It’s important to note that they did this when all of the rock and pop songs were competing on one chart, not the high number of charts today, when it’s much easier to have a number-one somewhere. We can’t really measure popularity anymore, because sales are so slight, and the majority of people have never even heard the songs that reach the top of a chart.
It’s almost unbelievable that The Beatles recorded all of their singles and albums in just 7 years in the 1960’s (only “I, Me, Mine” was worked on in January of 1970 by Paul, George, & Ringo). And, when they broke up, all four of The Beatles were still in their twenties!
Maybe today’s fans are feeling similar excitement about current artists. It’s also fantastic that other generations keep discovering The Beatles and love their music. But, they can never know the amazement the first Beatles fans experienced as each new album was released.