When delving into the music The Beatles recorded in 1967 and 1968, the tonal shift between the years becomes immediately noticeable. 1967 was the Summer of Love. Hippies were in abundance, flower power was commonplace, and the positive social energy of the decade was finally manifesting itself. In that year, The Beatles released two albums that very much reflected that atmosphere: ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ and ‘Magical Mystery Tour.’
In 1968, all of that was shattered. The Vietnam War reached its height, especially during the Tet Offensive in January. In April, Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down in Memphis. Violent race rioting enveloped much of the country, and in June, Robert F. Kennedy, another beacon of progressive hope and change, was gunned down as well. The world collapsed into itself for many in 1968. Their heroes were being killed and the world was burning. That year, The Beatles released their self-titled record, now known as the ‘The White Album.’
Songs like ‘All You Need Is Love,’ ‘When I’m Sixty Four,’ and ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’ embodied 1967. Similarly, tracks like ‘Happiness Is A Warm Gun’ and ‘Revolution 9’ embodied the following year. This list includes ten selections from two of The Beatles’ most important years that are very much worth revisiting.
# 10 – ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ – 1967)
The titular introductory track to 1967’s ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ is one of the most recognizable tracks in The Beatles’ entire catalog. The recording process of ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’ was one chock-full of heavy experimentation, not just musically, but also in regard to the identity of the band. The band removed themselves from being “The Beatles,” so to speak, and treated ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’ like a concept album.
The first track of the album is a bombastic announcement of that intention. It’s The Beatles as a fully realized rock band. From Paul McCartney’s grizzly vocals to the fuzzy, distorted electric guitar, ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ reintroduced the world to their favorite band in an entirely unexpected fashion.
# 9 – ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’ (‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ – 1967)
‘With A Little Help From My Friends’ follows ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ both in the album’s sequencing and on this list – they’re inseparable. Not only do the songs connect seamlessly, they complete the aforementioned re-introduction to The Beatles. ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’ puts its broad reach around the world in a loving embrace. It’s the perfect embodiment of the year in which it was released.
‘With A Little Help From My Friends’ also exhibits Ringo Starr’s finest time in the spotlight during the band’s final years. Nobody else could have sung this song with the infectiousness that Starr approaches it. Furthermore, the three other Beatles perfectly accent him with some of the outfit’s most legendary harmonies.
# 8 –‘All You Need Is Love’ (‘Magical Mystery Tour’ – 1967)
Similar to ‘With A Little Help From My Friends,’ ‘All You Need Is Love’ is a beautiful snapshot of 1967. It’s uplifting, hand-holding, flower power music to the highest degree. It isn’t cliche or kitschy, though. It’s pure and it’s authentic. It’s unbelievably heartfelt. It’s impossible not to listen to ‘All You Need Is Love’ and not sing along. In an era of some of The Beatles strongest songwriting, much of which can’t be showcased here in a mere ten songs, it’s important to remember the songs that meant a lot by saying a little. That’s what ‘All You Need Is Love’ is.
(Writer’s Note: Last weekend, I performed at a children’s hospital holiday party for an organization I volunteer with as a musician. While the children and parents loved a good many of the songs in my set, nothing could compare to the dancing, love, and impact that ‘All You Need Is Love’ had. It’s a song that still changes the world around us today.)
# 7 – ‘I Am The Walrus’ (‘Magical Mystery Tour’ – 1967)
In 1967, John Lennon received a letter from a student attending the high school he had graduated from. In that letter, the young student explained that his English class had put an immense amount of time into analysing the meaning behind Beatles lyrics. This amused Lennon to no end. Characteristically, he set to penning a song that would befuddle even the most astute listener.
‘I Am The Walrus’ is the pinnacle of The Beatles’ acids years, so much so that parts of the lyrics were written during separate trips that John Lennon had. The Fab Four weren’t just experimenting with drugs, though, they were experimenting in groundbreaking new ways. ‘I Am The Walrus,’ despite its oddities, is an elegant clash of psychedelic and classical influence. Its complex chord structure remains one of the band’s most unique, and the bridge is one of the more fascinating transitions in music. (Queue to the song’s two minute mark to hear it.)
# 6 – ‘Revolution 1’ (‘The Beatles’ (White Album) – 1968)
‘The Beatles,’ better known as ‘The White Album,’ is indeed highly reflective of 1968, and there are few songs more indicative of that than ‘Revolution 1.’ The song is John Lennon’s fiery condemnation of insincere and uneducated protesters. ‘Revolution 1’ isn’t necessarily a shot across the bow at the establishment, unlike most of its political counterparts in the music of the year. Instead, it’s a slap in the face to the listeners, imploring them to educate themselves.
There are several versions of ‘Revolution’ that have circulated over the years. The song was, after all, recorded throughout dozens of takes. One could argue that the intensity of the lyricism is best exemplified by the ‘single’ version of the track, a much more aggressive presentation of the tune, and likely the version most people are familiar with. ‘Revolution 1,’ the version on the record, while still excellent, does exclude some of the power of its single counterpart.
(‘Revolution 9’ is a brilliant jaunt through avant garde experimentation as well, and would certainly be included on this list if there were several more slots.)
# 5 – ‘Julia’ (‘The Beatles’ (White Album) – 1968)
When delving into songs like the different variations of ‘Revolution,’ its easy to paint a portrait of a very angst-driven John Lennon in 1968. ‘Julia,’ however, is arguably the most notable glimpse into the softer side of Lennon’s songwriting during that year. The finger-picked acoustic ballad is dedicated to Lennon’s late mother, Julia Lennon.
Lennon often said that he lost his mother twice in his life: once at early age when he was given to his Aunt Mimi when Julia was unable to raise him, and again when she died after being run down by a drunk off-duty police officer when he was seventeen. Lennon was just beginning to know his mother again at that time, and she was the person who turned him onto his musical talent.
Thus, with that in mind, the heartbreak of ‘Julia’ becomes dramatically more real. It’s a lovely ode to Lennon’s mother, one that captures the simplistic beauty of his more delicate songwriting.
(The instrumental version of ‘Julia’ on ‘Anthology 3’ is worth exploring, too, as it highlights the true grace of the composition very well.)
# 4 – ‘Within You Without You’ (‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ – 1967)
In 1966, The Beatles were introduced to the legendary sitarist Ravi Shankar in India. This meeting was particularly life-changing for George Harrison, as he stayed with Shankar for six weeks and underwent a mentorship that would alter the course of his life forever. For the rest of his years, Harrison was enthralled with Indian music and culture, and he heavily adopted teachings of Hinduism into his life.
The Hindi musical style is most obvious in The Beatles’ catalog on ‘Within You Without You,’ a psychedelic track laden with instruments like the sitar and the dilruba. The experimental production on the track is absolutely fascinating, as producer George Martin brought together an array of classical performers to score the intense soundscape that Harrison was crafting with layers of overdubs.
(It’s very important to note another thing about ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’ as an album: it was recorded entirely on four track. Hence, every four tracks, the band mixed them down into a single track and built on top of that track. This means that songs like ‘Within You Without You’ had several layers of four track sessions on top of one another.)
# 3 – ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ (‘The Beatles’ (White Album) – 1968)
While ‘Within You Without You’ was Harrison’s only songwriting contribution to the finalized sequencing of ‘Sgt. Pepper’s,’ some of his most recognizable work with The Beatles came on their next album. The pinnacle Harrison-penned track appeared on ‘The White Album,’ a song that would stand out as his most poignant work in The Beatles: ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps.’
‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ is one of very few songs in musical history that will send a chill down the listener’s spine each and every time it’s played. It has a magical aura to it. It’s almost operatic in a way, and Harrison’s commanding presence on the song is timelessly invigorating. The lead guitar performance, which was actually Eric Clapton, remains one of the most legendary solo sections in rock history to this day.
(While Harrison could perform the track, Clapton was partially brought into the studio to ease tensions between The Beatles. Harrison and Clapton were close friends, and Harrison thought that bringing a third-party into the environment would force The Beatles to focus and “be on their best behavior.”)
# 2 – ‘Blackbird’ (‘The Beatles’ (White Album) – 1968)
‘Blackbird’ is another song that’s in the aforementioned echelon of tracks that will never cease to send a chill down your spine. Put simply, ‘Blackbird’ is Paul McCartney at his very finest in The Beatles. The compassionate lyricism and tone of ‘Blackbird’ is quintessentially McCartney, and the acoustic guitar composition is one that will remain iconic for generations of musicians to come.
Most importantly, ‘Blackbird’ is one of the most eloquent songs of the era to delve into the poor race relations of the United States throughout the decade. In the same way ‘Revolution’ showcases Lennon’s social consciousness on ‘The White Album, ‘Blackbird’ showcases McCartney’s. The song is unbelievably reflective of its time, which again, ties directly into the year in which ‘The Beatles’ was released.
# 1 – ‘A Day In The Life’ (‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ – 1967)
‘A Day In The Life,’ one could argue, is the finest Beatles composition from their decade-long career. It’s the perfect culmination of John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s songwriting talent. They actually wrote their respective sections of the track separately, and ‘A Day In The Life’ combines them in a completely masterful fashion.
Above all, ‘A Day In The Life’ is an astonishing musical feat. The orchestral section of the track throws the rule book out the window, so to speak, and each classical performer was told to play in a different key as they rose through twenty-four bars. They were specified to not play in unison with the performers on either side of them, and each musician was only given one stipulation: reaching the final note at the same time.
This instruction, naturally, baffled the classically trained forty piece orchestra. “They all looked at me as though I were completely mad,” George Martin recalled years later. The final note also includes an array of pianos and a harmonium all playing the E-major chord at the same time. The Beatles spent thirty-four hours recording ‘A Day In The Life.’ That’s over thrice as long as the recording time of some of their early albums in their entirety.
‘A Day In The Life’ was released in 1967. Three years earlier, The Beatles were on stage performing ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ to cacophonous live audiences. That’s all it took The Fab Four: three years. They grew more in thirty six months than most acts do in a lifetime. That’s the magnificent legacy of ‘A Day In The Life.’