Friday, August 23, 2019

The best Beatles lyrics of all time

This post is only about lyrics! Here's my best shot, with my justifications:

#5: Maxwell's Silver Hammer
This is a bouncy little tune about a hammer-wielding murderer. Paul wrote it, and the other Beatles were unanimous in their dislike of it. (Lennon referred to it as "more of Paul's granny music.") Melody aside, the lyrics feature sophisticated, multi-syllabic rhymes and perfect meter:

Joan was quizzical, studied pataphysical science in the home
Late nights all alone with a test tube, oh, oh, oh, oh
Maxwell Edison, majoring in medicine, calls her on the phone
Can I take you out to the picture show, Joa, oa, oa, oan.

It's clever, it's unique, and plllttt to John.

#4: When I'm Sixty-Four
Another McCartney composition, written when he was sixteen. It features some of the best lyrics ever penned by a sixteen-year-old, such as:

I can be handy mending a fuse
when your lights have gone
You can knit a sweater by the fireside
Sunday mornings go for a ride

Doing the garden, digging the weeds
Who could ask for more?
Will you still need me, will you still feed me,
when I'm sixty-four?

#3: Across the Universe
This one is John's. He claimed it was among the best, most poetic lyrics he'd ever written. He was correct.

Words are flowing out like endless rain inside a paper cup
They slither while they pass, they slip away across the universe
Pools of sorrow, waves of joy are drifting through my opened mind
Possessing and caressing me

#2: Penny Lane
Primarily written by Paul, with lyrical contributions from John, this song wonderfully evokes a time and place--namely, a neighborhood in south Liverpool they frequently visited in their youth. 

In Penny Lane there is a barber showing photographs
Of every head he's had the pleasure to know
And all the people that come and go
Stop and say hello

It's gentle, poetic nostalgia beneath the blue suburban skies.

#1: Eleanor Rigby

Written primarily by Paul, with input from the other three, this song broke with convention by being a pop song about loneliness. The lyrics are eloquent and haunting:

Eleanor Rigby
Picks up the rice in the church where the wedding has been
Lives in a dream
Waits at the window
Wearing a face that she keeps in a jar by the door
Who is it for?

Honorable Mention:
A Day in the Life - An interesting collection of vignettes from newspaper stories, with lines like "A crowd of people turned away. But I just had to look, having read the book."

Back in the USSR - A parody of Chuck Berry's Back in the USA and the Beach Boys' California Girls, it's clever and fun. And the Ukraine girls really knock me out.

Let it Be - Admittedly, part of my love for the lyrics is the way they blend with the melody that accompanies them. In any event, there's something spiritual about a song that begins, "When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me."

She's Leaving Home - I love the imagery and characters of this song, and it might've made the top five were it not for the unfortunate last line, "Fun is the one thing that money can't buy." Really? Must have been in a rush to finish an otherwise great set of lyrics.

So...that's my best shot at a tough topic. What did I miss?

My next post will be the worst Beatles lyrics of all time!


  1. Have you tried this on Steely Dan? I say, sometimes lyrics are just accompanying sounds to irresistible music, produced beautifully...and sometimes the lyrics are poetry. It's hard for me to mind the verbal faux pas in the Beatles, Elton John or Steely Dan. (well, Steely was just obscure or extremely high, perhaps no real faux pas). I mean, what else could a person sing to that music but "B...B...B...B...Benny and the Jets"?! XO

  2. Doing this exercise also opened me up to appreciating the lyrics of Dylan, who always struck me as over-hyped...and some lyricists I'd never even given a second thought to, like Oscar Hammerstein. And he didn't even get a Nobel Prize for Literature. Hmpph.