Across the country this Independence Day break, families and Tinder connections on third dates will flock to theaters to see Danny Boyle’s Yesterday, following the viewers who drove it to a $17 million opening last weekend. In case you’ve avoided all indications of its existence, here’s the rundown: Boyle’s movie is a speculative comedy about a singer-songwriter, played by Himesh Patel, who remembers The Beatles after being transplanted into an alternate universe where they never existed. Naturally—and don’t think about this too long—he becomes the most popular musicians on Earth after performing and recording his own versions of their songs. Outside of the absence of the Fab Four and their various solo work, the music in the world of the film is the same as ours, leaving viewers to wonder whether a band like Coldplay would really exist in the same form without Paul McCartney having ever written piano ballads.
One of the cynical questions the film might raise for skeptics is: How bad or different would it really be if the Beatles’ catalogue did not exist? In a modern context, would their songs really become as big as they do in the film? A stupider, but perhaps more fun question is: If you were in Patel’s character’s situation and had the opportunity to introduce the world to The Beatles, which songs might you quietly keep to yourself? The task is not simply to name the worst Beatles songs (though certainly some of those would need to be accounted for), but also to consider how you would pragmatically streamline John, Paul, George, and Ringo’s songbook if given the chance, taking into account redundancies and songs that were key to their artistic evolution in detrimental ways. The Beatles have what is arguably the greatest songbook in pop history, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t use a Marie Kondo-style cleanout.
This useless mental exercise, which is really just a distraction prompted by the existence of an insipidly sentimental and wack movie, has let us to devise a chronological list of Beatles songs that we think could just as well have never existed. Bear in mind that we are tremendous fans of their work, and we approached creating this task with maximum consideration and empathy. We’re trying to stay away from low-hanging fruit; some of us may even have a soft spot for “Piggies.” (In the Yesterday universe, I’d play that on Corden and claim I wrote it in a heartbeat.) Perhaps surprisingly to some, we found little from the band’s early singles-driven period to object to, or to deem a moot point in their artistic evolution—even throwaways like “Honey Don’t” or “Baby’s In Black” don’t get our goats—and so are instead focusing on their album era. Without further ado, these are the songs that we’d be just as well off without. –WINSTON COOK-WILSON
“Run For Your Life” (Rubber Soul, 1965)
Rubber Soul begins with an upbeat little ditty about cars and ends with the ravings of a murderous psychopath. To modern ears, the album-closing “Run For Your Life” is a jarring tonal shift from the sweetness and sentimentality that pervade the rest of the album. “Well I’d rather see you dead, little girl, than to be with another man,” John Lennon sings to open the song, and soon demonstrates that he means it: “You better run for your life if you can, little girl / Hide your head in the sand, little girl / Catch you with another man, that’s the end, little girl.” The charitable reading is that Lennon is self-awarely sending up his own possessive tendencies, blowing them out of proportion for effect. But even if you’re inclined to defend “Run For Your Life” on those grounds, you’d have to admit that its jangly verses are forgettable next to “Jealous Guy,” the titanic Lennon song about the same topic (first demoed for the White Album but not released until after the band broke up) that he wrote a few years later.—ANDY CUSH
“Taxman” (Revolver, 1966)
With his devotion to Eastern spiritual traditions, and authorship of songs about the evil of greed and the impermanence of material things, George Harrison seems like the kind of guy who might swear off his worldly possessions, or at least be chill about giving some of them to the state for redistribution and public works. Not so in the mid ‘60s. “Taxman,” if you haven’t heard it, is basically about how Harrison, who was making tons of money at the time, did not like paying his taxes. More than for giving Republicans a moment to believe that the good guys are on their side, “Taxman” gets the boot for failing to distinguish itself musically, with melodies that singsong their way toward nowhere in particular. The best thing about the song is its economical but inventive arrangement, which achieves groovy psychedelic propulsion using only a few spare elements. If you squint and think a little too hard about it, it offers a useful counternarrative for any fatcats who might be listening: you don’t need as much as you think.—A.C.
“Doctor Robert” (Revolver, 1966)
If you don’t already think of “Doctor Robert” as a gimmicky exercise in superfluous key changes, go watch Bono play a Ken-Kesey-like acid guru of the same name in Across the Universe, and you’ll recoil from it for the rest of your life.—W.C.W.
“Yellow Submarine” (Revolver, 1966/Yellow Submarine, 1969)
A children’s song that’s too childish even for appreciation by children, “Yellow Submarine” is a rare clunker in the Beatles’ otherwise brilliant high psychedelic period, and the most likely of all their canonized hits to send you reaching for the radio dial when it comes on. If we were inclined to clear out an even larger chunk of their catalog, we might consider axing the entirety of the contract-fulfilling Yellow Submarine soundtrack album, which contained only four new Fab Four compositions. (The rest were George Martin orchestral cues and Beatles songs recycled from earlier releases. “Yellow Submarine” itself first appeared on Revolver.) Two of the new tunes, the cloying ”All Together Now” and self-pitying “Only a Northern Song,” are just as dreadful as “Yellow Submarine,” but don’t suffer from quite the same overexposure. But the third and fourth, the Lennon masterwork “Hey Bulldog” and Harrison drone-pop freakout “It’s All Too Much,” are brilliant enough to justify keeping the rest of the record around. And if you’re sad about losing “Yellow Submarine” itself, remember that the superior Ringo-led wacky singalong about living underwater is still available.—A.C.
“Fixing a Hole” (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, 1967)
It’s never a good look to hate on your fans. As McCartney recalled in the 1968 book Paul McCartney’s Guide to the Beatles’ Songbook, part of “Fixing a Hole” is about just wanting to chill and keep the Beatlemaniacs away: “See the people standing there/Who disagree, and never win/And wonder why they don’t get in my door.” At this point, McCartney was surely rich enough many times over to sequester himself from autograph-hungry kids; anyway, it’s pretty lame subject matter for a song that is aiming to be laid-back and heady. “Fixing a Hole” is probably the least controversial of the multiple Sgt. Pepper’s songs you could reasonably argue against: one of their weakest pieces of druggy psych-pop, coming across like a subpar Donovan album track and showcasing none of McCartney’s normal melodic prowess.—W.C.W.
“All You Need Is Love” (single/Magical Mystery Tour, 1967)
To fashion a leaner Beatles catalogue that still works, you have to shave off a few of the sentimental post-Pepper piano anthems. Leave “Hey Jude;” axe this instead. “Baby, You’re a Rich Man” is a much cooler Magical Mystery Tour closer anyway. There are pleasant touches in this 1967 single, which was written as the U.K.’s contribution to the world’s first live international television broadcast. The periodic final beats of the measures are dropped off playfully; the horn chromatics and heavily quotational outro are good fun. Otherwise, the song is pretty tedious in both lyric and melody, a foreshadowing of the lazier moments of Lennon’s solo career. Take a moment to consider the central line, which Lennon exhorts “every-baaah-dy” to yell along to: “All you need is love, love / Love is all you need.” If you’re going to write an overwrought ballad around a cheesy koan, at least pick one with a little cleverness or substance.—W.C.W.
“Ob La Di, Ob La Da” (The Beatles [White Album], 1968)
Even if you somehow find the catchiness of this chorus to be anything other than a contagion, please at least acknowledge that McCartney’s faux-Jamaican affect is repulsive. The central phrase, too, is nicked from a Nigerian musician. It’s no surprise that this caused one of the worst studio fights in the band’s history (Lennon predictably loathed the song), which lost the band one of their most important secret weapons: engineer Geoff Emerick, who walked out of the White Album sessions, and his longtime service to the band, after getting fed up with the animosity. (He would eventually return to work on Abbey Road.) If this song didn’t exist, that would have never happened; maybe the Beatles wouldn’t have even broken up.—W.C.W.
“Honey Pie” (The Beatles [White Album], 1968)
It is absolutely crucial (with the strongest possible italics I can muster) that we do not allow all of Paul McCartney’s late-period piano clinkers—with their whimsical, top-hat-and-tails Tin Pan Alley vibes—to be loosed on the public in the no-Beatles universe. I will not malign this category in full. Some of them are among the best songs McCartney ever wrote, with “Martha, My Dear” standing as the triumph of the subgenre, and “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” and “Your Mother Should Know” somewhere downbill. But not “Honey Pie.” From the moment the canned phonograph vocal effect kicks in on the intro, it’s already apparent that Paul has gone way too far with the Noel Coward cosplay. With its chugging BBC-miniseries-set-in-the-flapper-era banjo, affected crooning, and nauseating ad libs, “Honey Pie” is one of the best distillations of all the oppressively jolly instincts that later made Paul’s solo career so hard to fully embrace.—W.C.W.
“Don’t Pass Me By” (The Beatles [White Album], 1968)
Ringo’s loping C&W dirge is on this list because it may be the worst Beatles song of all time. That’s not to say it’s the most hateable; in fact, there’s almost a charm to its badness, embodying the anarchic spirit that is central to the White Album’s appeal. But out of context, there is absolutely nothing to recommend about its melody, lyrics, arrangement, performance, or production. “Don’t Pass Me By” also serves as a symbolic reminder of the numerous backtracks Ringo sang and wrote in the Beatles that rank on a scale of dubious to abysmal, from “Honey Don’t” to “Good Night”—God bless his heart. If we’re litigating what we really need to keep around, we’d be remiss not to point the finger at a couple of those (see “Yellow Submarine” above).—W.C.W.
“Let It Be” (Let It Be, 1970)
“Let It Be” popularized a chord progression that infected popular music across genres in the decades after its release, from “Take Me Home, Country Road” to “Don’t Stop Believing” to “Someone Like You” to “The Scientist” to “Dammit” to “Glycerine.” . Some of that music is indispensable—I won’t argue which—but I’d like to think, as Yesterday argues, that we could have found it a different way to it. Maybe someone could have solemnly played the “Heart and Soul” chords in the wrong order and written a better megahit. “Let It Be” (let what be?) is the Beatles song that slots in all too easily at an evangelical service, the one with that cornball delayed cymbal effect, and the one whose boring block-orchestral arrangement gave birth to countless overwrought power-ballad string sections. (No “Drops of Jupiter” without “Let It Be.” You decide if that’s good or bad.) “Let It Be” is a lot to give up, but I’d be willing to risk a universe without it, since we have no shortage of better McCartney piano ballads to choose from. Maybe The Beatles’ final album would have been called Dig a Pony instead—would have been pretty righteous.—W.C.W.