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Beatlemania is back, thanks to iTunes (though you tell me why “Dear Prudence” is #10). So we asked Beatle biographers to rank the songs in the Oscar-hopeful Beatle biopic Nowhere Boy, including an unfamiliar John Lennon-sung tune, two Lennon/McCartney rareties, and important songs the lads really sang.
McCartney biographer Peter Carlin explains how the songs play in the film, and in real life, and ranks them in quality:
1. “Maggie Mae” — As performed by the Beatles it’s a spirited jam session from the Get Back sessions, with some lovely John/Paul harmonies and a really warm spirit. Almost certainly because the tune is a Liverpool classic from their youth, a bawdy pub tune about a hooker and a boozed-up fella on Lime Street. In the film it’s a moment in the Oedipal drama playing out between John and his lost-then-found-then-lost mother, Julia. She brings the sexy back to the banjo, and young John is, creepily, smitten.
2. “Hello, Little Girl” — A Lennon original from the earliest Beatles days, one of the lost links between the featherweight jazz of ’50s pop and the four-in-the-bar stomp the Fabs would make so melodic and sweet in the ’60s. The Beatle version on the Anthology series didn’t raise many eyebrows, but this impersonator take [sung by Aaron Johnson as Lennon], spun into a heavily fictionalized portrayal of Julia’s death, invests layers of yearning. Still a minor song, and the drama in the movie is a bit of a cheat.
3. “In Spite of all the Danger” — Did you know that Lennon and McCartney were huge Buddy Holly fans? If you didn’t, one listen to “Danger,” either in the original (scratchy) recording on Anthology, or this carbon copy version in the movie [by the Beatle-impersonating Nowhere Boys], you can hear echoes of Holly, Elvis (the solo is basically “Jailhouse Rock”‘s guitar break) and the Everly Brothers, too. Not much of a tune, really, but John and Paul’s (real or simulated) harmonies play like a preview of coming attractions.
4. “Mother” — One of the truly crushing songs in Lennon’s catalogue. The version in the film is an actual outtake from the Plastic Ono Band sessions, a bit more upbeat and less funereal than the original. Lennon is obviously still getting a handle on the tune, but as with any familiar song, this lesser-known version offers a welcome, if only slightly new perspective.
5. “Raunchy” — George’s big party piece turned audition number. Good enough to earn him a spot in the world’s greatest band, but a pretty nondescript number, when you give it a listen. My favorite version is the one George played with Paul and Ringo during their videotaped Anthology jam session in 1994.
6. “That’s Alright, Mama” — Back to the Elvis. One of Paul’s big numbers back in the Liverpool-Hamburg-BBC live show era, he also pulls off a nice version in his 1987 Back in the USSR album. The John character sings it in the film, which the intemperate would call a verisimilitude fail. But they traded songs back and forth a lot back in those days, and who’s to say John didn’t take the lead for himself when he had a mind to do it?
7. “Teddy Bear” — One of Elvis’s great early tunes, and it’s always instructive to hear how flexible and powerful his voice was back then. Also important in these circumstances: Listen for how the Beatles’ vocals would eventually bear the King’s influence. Particularly Paul, who does a variety of Elvis tunes on the Live at the BBC compilation.
8. “20 Flight Rock” — Paul’s audition number on the day he met John (July 6, 1957, at a church fete). Hear his ass-kicking version on his hard-rocking Run Devil Run album of covers. Also recall that this is the song he opened his big Liverpool stadium show with in 2008.
9. “Love Me Tender” — I never got a handle on this one. I know Elvis fans think it’s sacrosanct but it sounds like saccharine to my ears. Don’t care who’s singing it, either. [Nowhere Boy George impersonator Sam Bell.] Sorry ’bout that.
10. “That’ll Be the Day” — One of Buddy Holly’s greatest tunes, and a holy relic to John and Paul. Check out their spirited Quarrymen-era cover, which is all youthful enthusiasm and rough-hewn joy. Lennon throws himself into the lead, and the harmonies are, as ever, spot on.
11. “Movin’ and Groovin” — A paleolithic rehearsal tape reveals this as more Chuck Berry guitar repurposed into an impressively fiery instrumental. A muddy recording, but full of grit, charm and taut guitar playing. [The Nowhere Boys play it more audibly on film.]
Beatle authority Tim Riley says:
1. “Maggie May” — This is a bit much, the Scouser streetwalker song sung by Julia to John.
2. “In Spite of All the Danger” — Credited to McCartney-Harrison, but staged to feature Lennon’s earnest vocal bemoaning the death of Julia, which hadn’t happened yet. But affecting.
3. “20 Flight Rock” — The Eddie Cochran song McCartney played for Lennon on the day they met, later done by the Stones and many others. Great comic lyric in the Chuck Berry vein, about how, after hiking all the way up to see his girl, the singer is “too tired to rock.”
4. “That’ll Be the Day” — Key Buddy Holly song Julia taught Lennon on the banjo. That’s a great metaphor for the Brits translating American rock’n’roll, so in love with Trad Jazz (dixieland) they simply adapt the new style to the old instrument.
5.“That’s All Right Mama” — Or “EAT SHIT,” as Greil Marcus called it.
6. “Raunchy” — The Bill Justis song Harrison auditions with on the bus, a loping guitar figure that only a guitarist could obsess over.
7. “Movin and Groovin” — How rock rears its head up through skiffle.
8. “Hello Little Girl “– Sung by Aaron Johnson.
9. “Mother” — Acoustic by John Lennon. They used an outtake of this colossal psychological dirge instead of the defiantly anti-pop single, and the close of the movie suffers for it.
10. “My Son John” — Sung by David Whitfield [who plays John’s beloved father-figure uncle, who dies and leaves him like everybody else]. Released in 1956, this may also have been the song John’s father Alfred sang at his pub the night John’s mother Julia whisked 5-year-old John away from Blackpool. Displays fascinating acquaintance with the songs hovering over his life that they used for his birthday party scene. Apparently it was among Julia’s favorites.
For the 10 Worst Beatles Songs, consult blogger Anne Thompson. For the 14 Worst Beatles Songs, see Brit crit Neil McCormick. Neither understands what made George and Ringo go, cat, go on Carl Perkins’ “Honey Don’t,” the B side of “Blue Suede Shoes” and in many critics’ opinions — including mine, and I was a music critic for People magazine, dammit — the better song. Bringing country consciousness to John and Paul was one of the great things George and Ringo contributed. Thompson and McCormick are wrong, cat, wrong.
(Follow my Race Tweets @timappelo)
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