The Beatles get a lot of credit. They are generally considered to be the greatest musical entity of the 20th Century. This makes sense, because they were. Much has been written by individuals more qualified than myself about how The Fab Four revolutionized not just an entire music industry, but an entire generation of youth. This makes sense, because they did.
Within the hallowed realm of Rock and Roll, The Beatles were progenitors, spokespeople, influencers, or inventors of a wide swath of musical stylings, from straight-ahead 50’s-style rock n’ roll (“Twist and Shout”) to psychedelic (“I Am the Walrus”) to punk (the feedback opening to “I Feel Fine”, the entire post-1967 attitude of John Lennon) to heavy metal (“Helter Skelter”) to acoustic folk (“Norwegian Wood”) to protest rock (“Revolution”) to alt-freak free associative statement art (“Revoltuion 9”) to, of course, pop music (everything they ever wrote). Their music was the stated foundation for acts as diverse as The Beach Boys and The Beastie Boys; Kurt Cobain and Katy Perry; Coldplay and The Clash. Whatever music you are listening to right now- The Beatles influenced that sound. Unless you are listening to Chuck Berry, JS Bach, or Gregorian chanting. I don’t think I’m exaggerating.
The Beatles get a lot of credit.
But here’s a place where they are perhaps not as well-recognized as they could be: Liverpool’s finest could write some spine-tingling, dread-stirring, dark, twisted and disturbing material. They were weird, they were imaginative, they had an occassionally morbid sense of humour, and they were way into hallucinogenic drugs: all of this translated into random spurts of darkness from the group most famous for wanting to hold our hand and only needing love. To wit: this sunny little album cover of the boys in butcher gear, covered in raw meat. Holding baby doll parts.
Therefore, for no apparent reason at all, I present to you…
“The Ten Most Frightening Beatles Songs (according to my definition of fear, dread, and/or strong sense of discomfort) Of All Time”
10. “Eleanor Rigby”, Revolver (1966)
Sometimes, the greatest fears are existential ones. Is my life meaningful? Do my actions have any significance? Am I missing out on genuine human connection? Is my ministry actively saving those around me from eternal damnation? Is this mason jar large enough to contain my face? All these questions are pondered by our two lonely protagonists, Eleanor Rigby and Father MacKenzie. And for the most part, it seems their greatest existential fears have indeed been realized. (At least her face fits in the jar by the door, though.)
9. “She’s Leaving Home”, Sgt. Pepper’s LHCB (1967)
This is a song about a young person’s desire to escape the rigidity of the life laid out for them by their parents expectations. It was a defining song for a defining time: in 1967, young people were moving beyond the moral, societal and spiritual fences established by prior generations. It is meant to be a song of liberation, freedom, and progress. Now that I’m of parenting age, however, I can’t help but empathize with the horror the parents feel at the realization that they have pushed their daughter into lonely flight. As the string section swells, I feel a pang of fear that, in only a few short years, it could be myself asking, “What did we do that was wrong”? Then I remember that this is just a pop song, and I get over it.
8. “Happiness is a Warm Gun”, The White Album (1968)
Perhaps it’s the connection to “Bowling for Columbine”, as Michael Moore soundtracked the tail end of this song to video footage of military assassinations, school shootings, and other random acts of gun terror. But whenever I hear the almost cartoonish harmonies of “bang bang, shoot shoot!” in this chilling White Album mashup song, the irony is lost for just a moment. Or maybe it’s simply the fact that a line like, “when I hold you in my arms/and feel my finger on your trigger” is intentionally uncomfortable. And to think, the song title was inspired by a line from a Charlie Brown comic strip. Maybe someone should do a Top Ten Scariest Charlie Brown Moments. (I bet Schroeder would feature prominently in that list, with his callous, icy gaze….)
7. “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds”, Sgt. Pepper’s LHCB (1967)
The background story of the song is touching: John Lennon’s son, Julian, showed his daddy a picture he had drawn of Lucy, his classmate with kaleidoscopes for eyes, floating in a diamond-studded sky. Adorable. Until the psychedelic imagery gets fleshed out further, and suddenly you are floating down a river of terror, surrounded by towering technicolor flowers, “rocking horse people” (?), plasticine porters, and a girl with KALEIDOSCOPES FOR EYES. Killer harmonies though.
6. “Helter Skelter”, The White Album (1968)
Even if a notorious cultic murdermonger (Charles Manson) hadn’t ordered his lackies to murder several wealthy socialites and then paint the words ‘Helter Skelter’, among other phrases, on the walls and refrigerator of their home with the blood of their victims; even if Charles Manson hadn’t believed his own twisted version of the lyrics to this song, wherein an apocalyptic war between the races would be ushered in by his sinister guidance; even if a book about these infamous murders hadn’t been written under the title “Helter Skelter”; even if none of that had ever happened, Helter Skelter would still be kind of scary. You know, because it’s aggressively loud and stuff. Maybe blisters on your fingers are the least of your worries.
5. “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”, Abbey Road (1969)
Apparently, this song was Paul’s expression for how things can suddenly go wrong in life. Well, things certainly go wrong for Maxwell Edison’s teacher, girlfriend, and even the judge at his trial, as they get their heads smashed in one-by-one with Maxwell’s expensive piece of custom hardware. Upping the song’s creep factor are (a) the cheery, perky rhythm and upbeat tune (a homicide ballad you can whistle along to!), and (b) the ominous tones of the Moog synthesizer stabbing out from the background shadows in moments of murderous release. The fact that this tune is sandwiched between two of Abbey Road’s sincerest love songs (“Something” and “Oh! Darling”) means that Paul intended this to feel like a bludgeoning to the shocked audience.
4. “Run For Your Life”, Rubber Soul (1965)
“Well I’d rather see you dead little girl than to be with another man/you better keep your head little girl, or you won’t know where I am”. No, this isn’t Metallica, or Sex Pistols, or Insane Clown Posse, or Wu Tang Clan, or any of the other hundreds of artist who use dark imagery to make a point or shock an audience. It’s John Lennon, who later called this his “least favourite Beatles song” and “the song he most regretted writing”. Why, John? Is it because you menacingly promised to hunt down an innocent woman for leaving you? And, follow-up question, John… just why do you think she may have left you in the first place? Perhaps your murderous rage? Somehow, I get the impression that a song like that wouldn’t have gone over too terribly well with good ol’ Yoko.
3. “Tomorrow Never Knows”, Revolver (1965)
The fear in this song is not derived by the lyrical content- a mash of Tibetan spirituality, stoned placidity, and generic platitudes about love. No, the unsettling nature of this song is found entirely in the musicianship and studio wizardry. Those bombastic drums (in my opinion, some of the best-recorded percussion in human history)! Those backwards looping guitar shrieks! That snaking line of sitar, or taboula, or synthesizer, or whatever! This song is perfect, but if you turn off your lights and relax to it, you might float downstream into some dark and harrowing mental experiences.
2. “Strawberry Fields Forever”, Magical Mystery Tour (1967)
This has to be one of the loveliest songs The Beatles ever wrote. So how did it make #2 on this list of fearsome Fab Four tunes? I feel like any explanation I attempt will fail to capture the sense of dread I feel in the pit of my gut every time the chorus stomps through. Combining the “let me take you down, ’cause I’m going to…” lyric with the deep sweeping rush of cello and the jarring, restless Ringo drum fill creates a real sensation of dropping into an abyss. A beautiful abyss- perhaps an oxymoronic phrase, but one that captures the original inspiration (an orphanage’s playground) perfectly. Heightening this palpable tone of dread is the false ending, which returns with military drums, skittering flute, and alarm-bell guitars. Beautiful and evocative, certainly; but with haunting undertones that can catch a listener unaware, like a kaleidoscopic python.
1. “Revolution 9”, The White Album (1968)
The first time I ever listened to this, uh, “song” was formative for my belief that there are few more terrifying works of art in modern musical history than this. I was home alone, working in our living room, with the White Album playing on vinyl in the background. I had seen on the album sleeve that a song titled “Revolution” was coming up, and I immediately assumed it was the eletric-guitar overload of John’s protest tune (you know, “you say you want a revo-LU-tiooooon, we-e-ell ya kno-o-o-ow…”). Instead I got the unnerving audio equivalent to a David Lynch film. As some lunatic repeatedly calls out for “Number 9”, slashed snippets of orchestra and crowd noise meander in and out, panning across the left and right stereo like a drunken brawler taking swings at a funhouse mirror. When the maniacal laughing hit at 1:48, I remember realizing that, alone in my living room, I suddenly had goosebumps. I had to turn it off before it was halfway through the 8:22 running time because it was so disturbing to me.
[Editor’s Note: I am writing this at midnight. Angie is in Ontario. I am attempting to listen through it again. The hair on my neck is sticking out. I gave up after 2 and a half minutes. “Revolution 9” retains its fear factor.]
Well, there you have it folks. Ten Beatles songs that evoke in me a sense of fear. I suppose you could add “Sun King” to this list, which is sung at least partly in Italian (or Spanish, or something). Since I don’t speak the language, it’s entirely likely the Sun King is in fact some kind of soul-devouring Necromancer. I doubt it, but as you can tell from the above list, the boys were up to some weird business in those crazy 1960’s. What Beatles songs would be included on your list? The claustrophobia of living in a “Yellow Submarine”? The creepy stalker-ish pleadings of “Please Please Me”? Perhaps you are unsettled by garden-tending octopi, or penny-grabbing Taxmen, or meter maids, or eggmen, or Mother Mary. What Beatles tunes fill you with fear?