Max over at Power Pop Blog was running a special forum for the past two weeks called “Beatles Week” (which obviously grew beyond the confines of seven days!) with people writing about a favorite Beatles song. Kindly he invited me to take part, and this was what I came up with. If you’re a Fab Four Fan, and it seems a large number of you are, I’d recommend taking a look at the other columns he ran on the topic.
When asked to write about a The Beatles song, I didn’t take long to make my pick. There’s just something about “Something” that moves me like no other…Beatles track. Yet getting to that point has been a long road. Maybe a long and winding one, even.
A little back history about myself. I was born in the ’60s but by the time I was cognizant of it really, let alone had my own little transistor radio to listen to it, The Beatles were done. Wings or solo Ringo, John or George were more relevant to me at the time. But my mom and older brother liked the Beatles and in fact, one of my early memories was hearing Sgt .Pepper Lonely Heart’s Club Band on our big old console in the living room, liking the music and loving the colorful cover. As a kid, I liked the simple pop hooks of Ringo and Paul, post-Beatles, songs like “You’re Sixteen” , “Helen Wheels” and “My Love.” I knew a lot of Beatles songs, either from AM radio or my family playing them on the stereo, and liked quite a lot of it but it was hard for me to grasp how influential or flat out great they had been.
As I hit my teens, was buying my own records and listening to FM radio, my appreciation of them grew. I had a used copy of Revolver, though I can’t remember why I specifically bought that one. A good album, absolutely, but never my favorite of theirs. I probably found it cheap in a used store or flea market. Around that time, I was growing to favor John. “Norwegian Wood “ and “Dear Prudence” were high on my list of Beatles songs and by the time I was getting to like his solo work as much as say, Paul’s 1980 rolled around and well, I think we all know what the end of that story was. As was the case with most people, my estimation of him rose rapidly and I listened to his work more, began to love songs like “Mind Games” and “#9 Dream” that I’d missed, or nearly so when they had first come out. I loved his work for peace and outspokenness and was oblivious to the shortcomings in his character. All the while though, George was just on the periphery of my musical awareness. Sure, “My Sweet Lord” was nice, and I was one of the minority who in ’79 bought and loved the “Blow Away” single, but he was really the “quiet Beatle” to me. Nearly invisible. Really, the thing I might have been most impressed with at that point was his work funding Monty Python films, since like most boys hitting puberty, I laughed my head off at things like the “Lumberjack Song” and killer rabbits.
That changed a little in ’88 when he had his comeback album, Cloud Nine. By that time too, the Beatles were finally putting out CDs of their old catalog and I’d decided, hey, they had a lot of good tunes, I should be getting some in my collection. I bought several of the ’60s works on CD and really that’s where my true appreciation for them began. That and noticing a good portion of the bands I thought were really good at the time – say Crowded House, Aztec Camera, Squeeze for instance – were almost universally described as “Beatle-esque.”
Anyhow, then and still to this day, Sgt. Pepper... has been my favorite Beatles work, but it is a close contest. Not surprisingly then, for years if anyone asked me for my favorite Beatles song, it was “A Day in the Life”. A song like no other, with its time changes, Paul and John changing off vocals, that almighty, seemingly endless piano chord to end it, the bizarre lyrics that actually made some sense when you read of their inspirations. It still is a great song and high on my list.
But just as the Beatles changed and matured during their career, so too have I. And as the band matured, George started to take his place at the front. He brought a new sense of spirituality, and experimentalism to them, opened them up to what we’d now call “World Music”, the sounds of the Far East. Being able to incorporate that into a pop-rock setting was revolutionary and quite a challenge I’m sure. But it worked! And as I matured, I grew more and more appreciative of George’s songwriting as well as his quiet sense of peacefulness. “Something” is the epitome of that to me. And to his ex-bandmates it would seem.
Early on, George was a guitarist and nothing much more to them. Maybe his first hint of potential greatness was on Rubber Soul when he wrote and sang “If I needed someone.” A pretty good song, and presumably John and Paul agreed since they let him put three onto the next record, Revolver, including “Taxman”, one of their many “hits” that never hit the charts because it wasn’t out as a single. A decent little snarky rock tune but probably not on anyone’s list of “best ever.” The first real taste of his brilliance was still a couple of years away, and their self-titled double album. “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” was to me the standout on the album and really showed his talent as a songwriter…not to mention nearly got Eric Clapton in the band. Let It Be was recorded next (but released last) and though he did “For You Blue” on it, as we saw in Get Back, he was distant from the band by then and briefly quit. It was becoming clear he’d outgrown the limitations he felt were imposed on him by the two main men who clearly wanted most of the spotlight.
Which leads us to Abbey Road. Their swansong, even if it did arrive in stores months before Let it Be. I gather by then they knew it was time to call it a day but leave fans with one more worth remembering. And they did just that. In particular George. He contributed – I’ll say it – the two best songs on it, “Here Comes the Sun” and “Something.”
“Here Comes the Sun” is a pretty incredible, happy-sounding song in which he introduced a synthesizer to the band and wrote a tune in seemingly impossible time signatures (changing rapidly from 4/4 to 11/8 to 7/8 and so on). It ranks high on my Beatles list too, but the crowning achievement was “Something.”
Pattie Boyd must have been “something” too. We know he wrote the song for her, his wife, and a couple of years later, his buddy Eric Clapton wrote “Layla” for her. In time he won her away from Harrison, and somehow they all remained friends. George was more tolerant than I would have been, I can tell you that. Maybe all the time with the Indian gurus really made him a better person.
Anyway, to me, “Something” is just about a perfect pop song. It’s beautifully written and immaculately played, and the lyrics are outstanding. If you’ve never been so in love, in the beginning, that the lines don’t make sense, well, I hope you’ll experience that head over heels feeling, combined with just a touch of anxiety over fear of losing it (“you’re asking me will my love grow/I don’t know/ I DON’T KNOW”). George demonstrates his love for Pattie and his slide guitar prowess all the while Ringo drums along exquisitely. The more I listen to Starr, the more I appreciate his talent. He plays for the song, not to take over the song. Then there are the under-stated strings, completing the song nicely. I think George Martin’s introducing strings to middle-era Beatles songs was one of the more under-rated things about them; how many rock & roll bands before 1965 would have thought to bring in violins and cellos? Now, it’s commonplace. There’s not really a point wrong with “Something” and it does it all in barely three minutes. Each time I listen to it, I seem to pick up on some tiny new detail I’d missed before that makes me appreciate it more.
Of course, my opinion was backed by many others. Frank Sinatra began singing it in his shows right away and called it “the greatest love song of the past 50 years”… and he knew a thing of two about love songs! (Unfortunately, he mistakenly told his audiences Lennon & McCartney wrote it.) Later Elton John would say it was “one of the best love songs ever –ever – written…it’s the song I’ve been chasing for the last 35 years!” And Ringo piped in that it and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” were “two of the finest love songs ever written” and put Harrison on a par with John and Paul. Critics tended to agree. The NME in Britain called it a “real quality hunk of pop” while Rolling Stone applauded its “excellent drum work, dead catchy guitar line, perfectly subdued stings and an unusually nice melody.” Add in great vocals and there’s not much missing there.
Happily, it was eaten up by the fans. It came out with “Come Together” as a single, but in most lands was considered the A-side. It hit #1 in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and of course the U.S. where it became their 18th #1 song…which happened to surpass the number Elvis Presley had. However, it was the first #1 song credited to George…not suprising because somehow, it was the first Beatles single he wrote or sang! And that’s saying “something” – when a guy can create songs this good and somehow be seen by the band as a third-stringer… wow. No wonder we’re still talking about them a half century later.