10 Underrated Beatles Songs
Don't sleep on these (kind of) hidden gems from the greatest band in the history of the Universe
Note: this list is based on an original post from my personal website, the9thpath.com. You may accuse me of laziness, but please, do not accuse me of plagiarism.
In 2010, I went to see Ringo and his All Star band at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. It was his 70th birthday. They rolled out a tremendous drum kit birthday cake and the entire crowd sang “Happy Birthday” to him, then a sprawling group of notable human beings joined him on stage to sing “With a Little Help from My Friends.” Members of the E-Street Band, ELO’s Jeff Lynne, Brian Johnson of AC/DC, Joe Walsh, Yoko Ono, and many more all chanting the apt chorus, eventually fading into “Give Peace a Chance”, written by an old friend of Mr. Starr.
It was a surreal moment.
Then, as if out some boyhood daydream, Sir Paul McCartney burst onto the stage and the crowd went ballistic. They broke into the White Album’s “Birthday” and the crowd took it up another notch. Beatlemania.
For one shimmering moment, I was one of those screaming preteen girls at JFK or the Ed Sullivan Show or Shea Stadium. Frenzied, delirious, hysterical.
I was about two decades short of knowing a world where the Beatles existed, nine years short of knowing a world where John Lennon lived and breathed, only about 12 years old when George moved onto his next life. Still, this band has had such a profound impact on my life that I, as a full grown man, wept and squealed in a public place when I had the miraculous opportunity of seeing the last of them take the stage together. It was a tremendous moment in my life and a bit of a historical moment for the music world, too. I say all of this mostly to brag but I think it also illustrates the sheer magnitude of the Beatles’ impact on my life and the lives of many, many others.
Here are ten lesser known tracks by the greatest band of all time that I think deserve a glance, or another glance, or a third or fourth glance, because with the Beatles’ music, as with all great music, the more you listen, the better it gets.
1. I Should Have Known Better
Album: A Hard Day’s Night
Written by: John
“I Should Have Known Better” did not go entirely unnoticed when it dropped in 1964. It charted as high as number 53 in America and was featured in a scene from the A Hard Day’s Night film. It’s considered one of the earlier Dylan-influenced tracks with its tasty harmonica intro and (very slightly) more introspective lyrics than in Lennon’s previous tunes, a trend that would continue boldly forward from there.
The real reason “I Should Have Known Better” is underrated to me is not immediately audible in the recording itself. It is a great little pop tune, of course, but it only becomes special when you look a little deeper at the songwriting, at the twice-used bridge (apparently not a chorus) in particular. Pick up an acoustic guitar if you can and strum along to it. It’s a thing of true beauty. Complex and unusual and pitch perfect.
I have often found that the brilliance of Beatles music is amplified exponentially when you sit down to learn it on the guitar. The bridge of “I Should Have Known Better” is a perfect example of this phenomenon. It’s a long and uncommon progression that contains one of the band’s most defining signature moves: using a 7th chord in a way that sounds Beatlesy rather than bluesy. What seems like your typical catchy pop tune is really a master class in songwriting that had almost no precedent and still continues to elude comparison today.
2. The Inner Light
Written by: George
The reverse of 1968’s “Lady Madonna” was the third and final of George Harrison’s major Indian-influenced tunes released with the Beatles, and in my opinion it’s his finest. The instrumental track is warm and energetic, boasting joyful melodic lead lines and a galloping beat that makes me wish I wasn’t too white to dance.
The lyrics are mostly transcribed from a poem in the Tao Te Ching and serve as a crash course on transcendental philosophy:
Without going out of your door
You can know all things on Earth
Without looking out of your window
You can know the ways of heaven
Simple yet potent and when combined with an instrumental track that makes you feel like dust motes dancing in a shaft of infinite light it becomes one of the sweetest unsung songs in Harrison’s Beatle catalog.
This tune, along with “Love You To” and “Within You and Without You” stand tall among the tracks listeners come across and think “This is the Beatles?” and so begins their transformation from casual to crazed fan.
3. Every Little Thing
Beatles for Sale
Written by: Paul
Slapped together from old Cavern Club covers, rehashed early Lennon-McCartney collaborations, and a handful of tunes written in the midst of Beatlemania’s greatest heights, 1964’s Beatles for Sale as an entire album goes a bit underappreciated. Not so much for its sparkling quality, it is indeed a collection of relative misfits, but for the fact that it still manages to be a wonderful listen in spite of the context in which it was created.
The band had been besieged by interviews, TV spots, and tour dates spanning the globe at the time of the album’s recording, leaving little time to write any new material at all. Still, they found fourteen mostly-quality tracks and crammed the recording sessions for Beatles for Sale in between British and U.S. tours around August of 1964, about two months after the release of A Hard Day’s Night. It was their fourth album in less than two years. It spent 11 weeks at number one and 46 weeks in the top 20.
Bands today with equipment eons ahead of what was at the Beatles’ disposal take years to create one album. John, Paul, George, and Ringo threw this puppy together on their day off and it went platinum.
“Every Little Thing” is one of the finer tracks on Beatles for Sale. More upbeat than most of the gloomy and introspective originals on the record, the tune is somewhat unusual for the fact that it was penned by Paul and sung by John, something that was not all that common for the duo. It carries a bright and catchy chorus with some nice 12-string guitar work from John. The solo is heartfelt and I love the booming drum between chorus vocals.
I won’t say “Every Little Thing” is a towering triumph in Beatles songwriting or anything like that. It’s just a great little track that’s representative of one of the more slept on albums in the Fab Four’s catalog. Any great tune on an underrated album is underrated, too.
Non-album B-side for “Paperback Writer”
Written by: John
The drum and bass work on this 1966 b-side is tight and tasty and I want the world to know. Sure, it’s most definitely a dark horse favorite among Beatle fanatics, it’s even the name of a Broadway-level cover act, but it typically evades the casuals and the naysayers who would probably think a little deeper about the band’s nearly unrivaled brilliance if they were to give it a listen.
“Rain” was an early example of middle-60s LSD enlightenment finding its way into popular music. It predates “Tomorrow Never Knows”, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, and “Strawberry Fields Forever,” making it perhaps the very first psychedelic sojourn for the Fab Four.
Fittingly, the lyrical content is filled with technicolor philosophy:
Can you hear me
That when it rains and shines
It’s just a state of mind?
The band created a unique sound on the record by recording the backing track fast and then slowing it down, a forbearer of the many revolutionary forays in the studio to come. It was also innovative in the use of backwards tape in its coda, something that would go on to be used in multiple other Beatles tracks and subsequently by other music greats like Jimi Hendrix and Yes. John reportedly stumbled upon the mystifying sound when accidentally running a tape backwards while attempting a considerably stoned listen-through following that day’s recording session.
Artistic innovation aside, this song is just plain good. It’s a bright and beautiful rocker with great lyrics, dazzling harmonies, and fantastic playing throughout. Next time some heathen tries to tell you the Beatles weren’t much on their instruments, do them a favor and show them “Rain”, then backhand the headphones off of their ignorant skull. That bassline is your daddy and you know it.
5. And Your Bird Can Sing
Written by: John
If “Rain” can dispel any myths about the Beatles’ supposed lack of ability on the bass and drums, “And Your Bird Can Sing” should be able to do the same for any hogwash spoken about their guitar playing. Don’t get me wrong, none of them were ever going to be truly transformative on their instrument like Hendrix, or mindbendingly virtuosic like Jaco Pastorius, but there is no question that these boys could all lay it down. Paul in particular is considered by many to be among the most influential bassists of all time. I personally like him on the guitar even better, like in that smoking transcendental solo he plays on “Taxman” and in the harmonious dual-leads he shares with George on “And Your Bird Can Sing.”
One of many sparkling tracks on 1966’s eclectic masterpiece, Revolver, this proto-power pop tune presents one of the finest guitar moments in the band’s whole catalog. It’s not Van Halen erupting or Jimi practicing voodoo, it’s simply Paul and George and an uncommon synchronicity that is definitive of everything the Beatles ever did.
Fittingly enough, the wonderful harmonizing is also there in the vocals, which chime beautifully at the end of each line. John’s lyrics here have begun to delve into the more cryptic and colorful realms that would ultimately produce the paradigm-shifting pop of “I Am the Walrus” and “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Predecessors are always underrated.
“And Your Bird Can Sing” is just a pitch-perfect two-minute tune. John hated it, Paul loved it. On this topic, I’m in Paul’s camp. Now you go have a listen and pick a side.
6. Cry for a Shadow
Written by: George and John
The Anthology discs are full of fascinating bits and pieces of the side of the Beatles’ legend left untold by the tidy finished products of their albums and singles. Outtakes, early demos, and interview snippets all help to fill in some of the blanks in the story of the creative process and musical evolution of the greatest band that ever was. If you’re a Beatles nerd like me, you’ve listened through it all. If you’re a peripheral fan, you probably haven’t done more than dip your toes into the dozens and dozens of thought-provoking tracks it has to offer. Well friend, if that’s you, I’m here to tell you you’re missing out.
Track 12 on Anthology 1, “Cry for a Shadow”, is a simple little ditty; an instrumental tune thrown together by John and George in the Hamburg days and intended as a b-side for a Tony Sheridan track they had recorded. Upon its release in June 1961, it became the first ever original recording by the Beatles to be offered to the masses, making it a lot more important than it’s generally given credit for. It isn’t too particularly special in terms of structure or performance, but it is a damn catchy tune with a nice bit of guitar playing from Lennon and Harrison.
For me personally, it evokes a monochrome early 60s dance scene. Girls in plaid skirts and boys with fresh haircuts, smiling and grooving along to the devil’s music, blissfully unaware of the titanic cultural revolution that lay just ahead. Simpler times.
The Beatles, blissfully unaware themselves, would go on to spearhead that cultural revolution on the back of these exciting electric sounds and become global icons for peace, love, and wonderful music. It’s just sort of cool to hear “Cry for a Shadow,” a naïve little time capsule from before the flower bomb was dropped on us all.
7. It’s All Too Much
Written by: George
“It’s All Too Much” may be the quintessential underrated Beatles tune, if that makes any sense at all. It wasn’t a hit single and it isn’t too well known among the casual music-loving populous and yet it absolutely glows.
This six-and-a-half minute psych-rock voyage was on the band’s least decorated British release, 1969’s Yellow Submarine, which does boast “Hey Bulldog” (also underrated) but consists mostly of rereleased singles (“Yellow Submarine” and “All You Need is Love”) silly throwaways (“It’s Only a Northern Song” and “All Together Now”) and orchestral tracks for the animated feature film of the same name. I mean, it is a film soundtrack with original music by the Beatles, therefore it’s still wonderful, but it definitely lacks the mind-bending innovation present in literally all of their other releases around the same time.
This tune was recorded during the Summer of Love and it wears that fact on its sleeve. It bursts open with a blaring dose of feedback that immediately lets you know you’re entering a brand new Beatle realm, a realm of acid-rock astral projection and Hendrix-like electricity.
George brings the classical Indian influence onto this one with a little more subtlety than in some of his other tracks. The G-chord drone and organ hum suggest a meditative state is being achieved, and the lyrics seem to confirm:
Floating down the stream of time
Of life to life with me
Makes no difference where you are
Or where you’d like to be
There is certainly a fanbase for this psychedelic gem; critics and fans have praised it, noteworthy bands like the Grateful Dead and Journey have covered it, but I still feel like it lacks the credit it deserves. Perhaps it’s the admittedly wonky mix that can be off-putting if you’re not quite stoned enough or perhaps it’s the fact that the long delay between recording and release left it seeming less envelope-pushing than it actually was. By the time it was made available to the masses in January 1969, the Summer of Love had broken up and the flower power movement had already begun to wilt.
“It’s All Too Much” is nothing like any other Beatles song, making it a perfect microcosm of the very thing which makes the band so bafflingly good: they never stopped growing and changing, and they never stopped surprising the world with the things their art could do. I mean, wait a minute, the cat who wrote “You Like Me Too Much” only two years prior is the same cat who wrote this?
8. Two of Us
Let It Be
Written by: Paul
An acoustic Beatles song performed by the whole band? Sounds absolutely lovely.
“Two of Us” is absolutely lovely. Simple and sweet, with flavorful “bass” from George played on the lower notes of a Fender Telecaster and heart-warming shared-mic harmonies from John and his old friend Paul. A tender moment in what would be some of the group’s final days together.
The verse lyrics are said to be about Paul’s budding romance with Linda, but some have looked at the bridge as wistful reflections on the dwindling relationship he had with his legendary songwriting partner.
You and I have memories
Longer than the road that stretches out ahead
The words were truer than Paul could ever have known: The Beatles broke up less than a year after the song’s recording and John’s life would be taken outside the Dakota building in New York City on December 8th, 1980, a little more than ten years later.
With this retrospective knowledge, “Two of Us” becomes a far more poignant tune than its sunny melody and gentle instrumentation suggest. That, to me, is what makes it a truly undervalued Beatles gem.
9. You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)
Non-album B-side for “Let It Be”
Written by: John and Paul
“You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)” was the reverse of the Beatles final UK single, “Let It Be”, meaning it was most likely the final original Beatles song many fans ever heard. What a strange way to go out.
It’s a straight up comedy record that moves along in distinct sections, beginning as a nice sounding would-be pop tune that absolutely must have been sampled by a hip hop artist by now and then moving along into stranger and stranger territory, degrading in sanity the whole way through. There’s sexy lounge jazz and zany music hall and the harrumphing voices of old British men who seem to belong on Sesame Street.
The song is really weird and in my honest opinion it isn’t really even very funny, but it does capture a side of the Beatles that most of their records do not. These four irreverent Liverpudlians did not become the biggest sensations the world had ever known simply on the merit of their amazing music. They were personable and charismatic, clever and witty, cheeky and charming. They were just plain fun. This is all made evident in their interviews and in their feature films, but only a few songs really show it. Not quite so much as “You Know My Name…” does at least.
To really understand the power of the Beatles, the grand scope of their magnificence, you need to understand them as more than musicians. You need to know them as humans. Strange, very British humans with goofy senses of humor and the cunning to know that everything belongs in music, even comedy.
10. Real Love
Written by: John and completed by Paul, George, and Ringo
Depending on how you look at it, this may in fact be the last Beatles song anyone ever heard. While it is technically sewn together from a 1979 Lennon demo and a 1995 reunion of the surviving members, it still came together to create something far greater than the sum of its parts.
Lennon’s chords and melody are dreamy and heartfelt and tinged with sadness. The harmonies are modest but lovely; just to hear those voices in unison once more is a blessing. Above all, George’s signature lead lines and pristine solo are really what bring it into Beatles territory for me. True, pure Harrison only six years before lung cancer would claim his life and effectively lay to rest any other plans of refurbishing old demos into brand new Beatles tracks.
“Real Love” is a damn fine tune. The original demo is worthwhile on its own, but the color and flavor and feeling that the other lads bring to the track are what really make it special. It stands as a wonderful testament to the aforementioned unusual synchronicity that these four men had with one another. Nearly 50 years later and an afterlife apart, they still had it, baby.