Fab Four Face-Off: What’s the Greatest Beatle Song Of All Time?


Fab Four Face-Off: What's the Greatest Beatle Song Of All Time? by @LizaBlueWriter #TheBeatles #FabFour #music

I frequently drive between Marquette, Michigan, and Chicago, relying on a mix of podcasts to stay awake, most prominently NPR’s Fresh Air. On this last trip, I was treated to a trial subscription to Sirius Radio, where I found The Beatles channel.

I enjoyed seven joyous and uninterrupted hours of Beatles music. One segment featured listeners describing their “Fab Four,” their four favorite Beatles songs.

I accepted the challenge to select my “Fab Four:”

  1. Twist and Shout

This song was released as a single in the US in 1964 and performed on the Ed Sullivan Show. Twist and Shout was a cover song, most notably performed by The Isley Brothers, and presented a stark contrast to their own compositions.

Even as a preteen, I was disappointed in the timid lyrics of early Beatles songs – I Saw Her Standing There (My heart went boom as I crossed that room), She Loves You (She says she loves you, you know that can’t be bad), or I Wanna Hold Your Hand (please say to me that you’ll let me hold your hand).

The Beatles traveled to Germany three times to hone their act. I wasn’t so naïve to think that dancing and holding hands would be enough to satisfy four randy Liverpudlians enjoying the debauchery of Hamburg’s red-light district.  The lyrics seemed downright silly.

Twist and Shout is a full-on thumping rock ‘n roll song with a raw and exhausted John Lennon rasping the lyrics.

Well, shake it up, baby, now
Twist and shout
Come on, come on, come, come on, baby, now
Come on and work it on out
Well, work it on out, honey
You know you look so good
You know you got me goin’ now
Just like I knew you would

After the first two repeated stanzas, the energy escalates further with a rising sequence of single-note harmonies, from John to George to Paul, culminating in a collective agonized scream. An instrumental bridge follows, where everybody can take a breath, including me, tooling along the highway south of Iron Mountain. Then John cranks it up again as he takes the lead for the final verses.

The song concludes with another rising chorus, screams, and a sudden stop. I imagined John would need medical attention to revive his limp body and excoriated throat.

I watched their performance on The Ed Sullivan Show when I got home. Don’t do this. The video devalues the audio. The Beatles wear tidy identical suits and ties. Not a rock ‘n roll image. Their movement on stage is limited to slight knee bends, not the gyrating movement embedded in the song.

The band should be a sweaty mess, but all I see is a slight sheen on John’s forehead. At the end of the song, Ringo jumps down from his drums to join the others. They stand straight up, feet together, and make a choreographed bow.  This chaste image sucks the life out of the audio of a sweat-soaked song throbbing with sexual energy.

I recommend this audio version. Let your imagination do the rest. Hearing it twice on my car ride was an exhilarating experience. The second time, I let go of the wheel as I did an abbreviated twist followed by a scream.

If you must, here is The Ed Sullivan Show performance. The visuals of Beatlemania are its redeeming value, particularly the girl with the Coke bottle glasses at 20 seconds. At 1:43, the hysterical teenager is a dead ringer for my friend LeLe, but she denies it. Personally, I would be delighted if I was included in one of the fevered crowd shots, forever a fun fact to amuse generations across the universe.

  1. A Hard Day’s Night

I haven’t focused on this song for decades, but the first chord is seared in my mind. Early Beatles songs were either in a major or minor key, but the multiple layers of this chord defy its classification.

The uncertain atmosphere is accentuated by the slight pause that follows the tense and vibrating chord. This pause creates a precipice, a heady anticipation for the oncoming song, but the mysterious chord leaves you hanging. You don’t know if you’ll plunge into an upbeat major song or an edgy minor. That pause also suggests that the Beatles were drawing a line under one era and entering another, much the same way their teenage audience was entering a new world with dizzying possibilities.

The song, album, and movie were released in 1964 when the band was completely knackered by constant touring and the tumult of Beatlemania. In his commentary on I Want to Hold Your Hand, Paul says, “To tell you the truth, I think we were writing more to a general audience.” In A Hard Day’s Night, the lyrics get more personal and explicit, providing an insight into their lives.

You know I work all day to get you money to buy you things.

It’s worth it just to hear you say, you’re gonna give me everything.

A Hard Day’s Night is credited to John, who sings the lead. Can’t Buy Me Love, sung by Paul, is the other standout song on the album. The contrasting lyrics of the two songs suggest that Paul and John have different takes on fame and wealth:

I’ll buy you a diamond ring, my friend
If it makes you feel all right
I’ll get you anything, my friend
If it makes you feel all right
‘Cause I don’t care too much for money
But money can’t buy me love

Other songs on the album address the pain and jealousy of love instead of the simple joy of earlier songs – Tell Me WhyI’ll Cry Instead, and If I Fell.

As a side note, the internet is pockmarked with discussions of the mysterious initial chord. In his 2021 anthology, The Lyrics, Paul acknowledges the controversy and states he has no idea what the chord is. Others have dissected the chord with sophisticated audio techniques and provided this geeky explanation:

“The mystery is caused by the fact that Martin is playing a piano chord atop Harrison’s Fadd9 (or “F with a G on top,” as he said in early 2001) played on his 12-string Rickenbacker, Lennon’s Fadd9 played on his Gibson J-160E and McCartney’s single note (D) played on his Hofner 500/1 bass.”

Whatever the ingredients, that single chord is an enduring auditory trigger. So much is packed into that chord and the pause, just long enough for John to tap his guitar twice before launching into the lyrics.

  1. Penny Lane

Originally slated to appear on the Sgt Pepper album, Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields were released together on a double-sided single (45 rpm) in February of 1967. Sgt Pepper was released the following May. In 1967, The Beatles stopped touring and retreated into the recording studio, where they could experiment with musical techniques

At the 1:13 second mark, a high-pitched piccolo trumpet erupts with a vibrant, rising solo that reaches dog-whistle heights. Earlier, I had heard the companion song Strawberry Fields and appreciated the complex range of instruments, including, as noted on the ever-handy Wikipedia, cello, brass, flute, an Indian harp, a fade-out/fade-in coda, and reverse-recorded instrumentation.

The resulting effect is described as dreamy or psychedelic, but to my unsophisticated ears, it felt muddled and blurry around the edges. The piccolo trumpet solo was a definitive contrast. Its precise, triumphant notes jolted me from my seat. This was no background music. It slaps you right in the face as something utterly different. The trumpet is not trying to create a mood. It has no other agenda than its unadulterated existence.

I wondered how Paul ever conceived of the trumpet. According to a detailed history of the song, Paul happened to be watching a performance of a Bach Brandenburg Concerto on the telly when he heard the trumpet. The next day he contacted the musician and asked him to drop by the studio. He had never heard of The Beatles, but gamely showed up, played Paul’s scribbled notes, did a few takes, and then left, not realizing that he would be forever known as “that trumpet guy.”

Paul’s open mind to such a broad range of musical influences astounded me, an inspirational example of the pervasive curiosity that drives artists. Try anything. Be original. Paul sums it up, “I don’t know where I dredged it up from, but in the great trawling net of my youth, it just caught up like a dolphin.”

I can instantly recognize any Beatles song regardless of the era, but as I entered the closing hour of my journey, the music was still fresh, changing and evolving; in this case, thanks to a piccolo trumpet.

Fab Four Face-Off: What's the Greatest Beatle Song Of All Time? by @LizaBlueWriter #TheBeatles #FabFour #music

  1. Across the Universe

John composed Across the Universe during his intense interest in the Maharishi and meditation, just before The Beatles’ 1970 break-up. Its contemplative and soulful lyrics contrast with John’s more typical aggressive and angsty compositions.  The same wistful tone permeates Lennon’s famous Imagine, released in 1971 on his first solo album.  Although Imagine presents an aspirational vision for the future, I find the lyrics hopelessly unrealistic to the point of delusion.

I prefer the poetic lyrics of Across the Universewhich provide a more subtle call for universal harmony.

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

Jai guru deva, om
Nothing’s gonna change my world
Nothing’s gonna change my world
Nothing’s gonna change my world
Nothing’s gonna change my world

Images of broken light which dance before me like a million eyes
They call me on and on across the universe
Thoughts meander like a restless wind inside a letterbox

They tumble blindly as they make their way across the universe


Sounds of laughter shades of life are ringing
Through my open ears inciting and inviting me
Limitless undying love which shines around me like a million suns
It calls me on and on across the universe


Imagine contains the simple ABAB rhyming scheme that typifies early Beatles songs (try/sky, do/you, can/man). In contrast, Across the Universe only contains two internal rhymes (caressing/possessing and inciting/inviting). This poem is not constrained by the necessity of wrangling the lyrics into a rhyme; released from structure, the lyrics flow.

I found the chorus puzzling. Based on the audio alone, I didn’t realize that the first line was a Sanskrit saying. My best guess was “Like a new day, love,” which also works well.

“Nothing’s gonna change my world” is an ironic statement from a man who was trying to change the world (who claimed to have an open mind in the first verse), singing to an audience whose world had been changed by The Beatles.

In an interview, Paul said that John’s original lyrics were “Meditation’s gonna change the world,” which was considered awkward. So the four-syllable “meditation” was changed to the two-syllable “nothings.” This revision reflects the conflicting demands of lyrics and music.

Music won out on this one. Paul admitted that some of The Beatles’ lyrics were throwaways – their primary goal was to make the song “sound” good.

As I pulled into my drive and ended my Beatles marathon, I exulted in the amazing human brain, which can call up long-forgotten melodies and lyrics with the twang of a single chord, a shout, a twist, a trumpet, or rain in a paper cup.

Paul, John, George, and Ringo – thanks for the ride.

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