A 17-Hour Chronological Playlist of Beatles Songs: 338 Tracks Let You Hear the Musical Evolution of the Iconic Band

The Bea­t­les have seem­ing­ly nev­er been just a band; they’ve been a brand, a his­to­ry, an insti­tu­tion, a genre, a gen­er­a­tional sound­track, a mer­chan­dis­ing empire, and so much more—possessed of the kind of cul­tur­al impor­tance that makes it impos­si­ble to think of them as only musi­cians. Their “nar­ra­tive arc,” Tom Ewing writes at Pitch­fork, from Beat­le­ma­nia to their cur­rent enshrine­ment and every­thing in-between, “is irre­sistible.” But the sto­ry of the Bea­t­les as we typ­i­cal­ly under­stand it, Ewing writes, does their music a dis­ser­vice, set­ting it apart from “the rest of the pop world” and “mak­ing new­com­ers as resent­ful as curi­ous.”

For all the deifi­ca­tion (which John Lennon scan­dalous­ly summed up in his “big­ger than Jesus” quip), the band began as noth­ing par­tic­u­lar­ly out of the ordi­nary. “Britain in the ear­ly 1960s swarmed with rock’n’roll bands,” and though the Bea­t­les excelled ear­ly on, they most­ly fol­lowed trends, they didn’t invent them.

Their sound was so of the time that Decca’s A&R exec­u­tive Dick Rowe passed on them in 1962, telling Bri­an Epstein, “gui­tar groups are on their way out.” Lit­tle could he have known, how­ev­er: “gui­tar groups” came roar­ing back because of the band’s first album, Please, Please Me, and the espe­cial­ly savvy mar­ket­ing skills of Epstein, who helped land them that fate­ful Ed Sul­li­van Show appear­ance.

Mil­lions of peo­ple saw them play their sin­gle “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and the world changed for­ev­er, so the sto­ry goes. In so many ways that’s so. The Ed Sul­li­van gig launched a thou­sand bands, and remains at top of the list of near­ly every baby boomer musician’s most influ­en­tial moments. But as the six­ties wore on, and Beat­le­ma­nia assumed the var­i­ous forms of lunch­box­es, fan clubs, and a wacky car­toon series with bad­ly imper­son­at­ed voic­es, their act seemed like it might run its course as a pass­ing pop-cul­ture fad. They were, in effect, a very tal­ent­ed boy band, sub­ject to the fate of boy bands every­where. Their ascent into Olym­pus wasn’t inevitable, and “every record they made was born out of a new set of chal­lenges.”

Rub­ber Soul, the band’s 1965 farewell to the care­free, boy­ish pop band they had been, per­fect­ly met the chal­lenge they faced—how to grow up. It was “the most out-there music they’d ever made, but also their warmest, friend­liest and most emo­tion­al­ly direct,” Rob Sheffield writes at Rolling Stone. They were “smok­ing loads of weed, so all through these songs, wild humor and deep emo­tion go hand in hand.” These threads of play­ful, drug-fueled exper­i­men­ta­tion, screw­ball com­e­dy, and earnest sen­ti­ment changed not only the band’s career tra­jec­to­ry, but “cut the sto­ry of pop music in half,” Sheffield opines.

Such procla­ma­tions can and have been made of the ground­break­ing Sgt. Pepper’s Lone­ly Hearts Club Band. Each Bea­t­les mile­stone cements our impres­sion of them as a mes­sian­ic force, des­tined to steer the course of pop music history—a sto­ry that gloss­es over their nov­el­ty records, less­er works, many out­takes and half thoughts, cov­er songs, and flops, like their 1967 Mag­i­cal Mys­tery Tour film. Some of these less­er works deserve the label. The mel­lotron-heavy “Only a North­ern Song” on Yel­low Sub­ma­rine, for exam­ple, sounds far too much like an infe­ri­or “Straw­ber­ry Fields For­ev­er.”

Oth­ers, like the Mag­i­cal Mys­tery Tour sound­track album, give us gems like McCartney’s “Pen­ny Lane” (a song orig­i­nal­ly record­ed dur­ing the Sgt. Pepper’s ses­sions), as well as “I Am the Wal­rus,” “Hel­lo Good­bye,” “Baby, You’re a Rich Man,” “All You Need is Love” … the film may have dis­ap­point­ed, but the record, I’d say, is essen­tial.

In the chrono­log­i­cal Spo­ti­fy playlist fur­ther up of 338 songs, you can fol­low the quirky, upbeat, down­beat, some­times uneven, some­times breath­tak­ing­ly bril­liant musi­cal jour­ney of the band every­one thinks they know and see why they are so much more inter­est­ing than a muse­um exhib­it or rock and roll mythol­o­gy. They were, after all, only human, but their will­ing­ness to indulge in weird exper­i­ments and to mas­ter genre exer­cis­es gave them the dis­ci­pline and expe­ri­ence they need­ed to make their mas­ter­pieces.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How The Bea­t­les’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lone­ly Hearts Club Band Changed Album Cov­er Design For­ev­er

Watch HD Ver­sions of The Bea­t­les’ Pio­neer­ing Music Videos: “Hey Jude,” “Pen­ny Lane,” “Rev­o­lu­tion” & More

Hear the 1962 Bea­t­les Demo that Dec­ca Reject­ed: “Gui­tar Groups are on Their Way Out, Mr. Epstein”

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (3)
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  • joe says:

    This writer’s take about the Bea­t­les is a big load. He has no clue.

  • Mikael says:

    What an insight­ful and val­ue-add com­ment you gave there. Way to go.

  • Eric says:

    If you think he’s wrong, be spe­cif­ic. I dis­agree with a few points and agree with many more. Let’s ele­vate the con­ver­sa­tion and maybe learn about a dif­fer­ent point of view. One of the great strengths of the Bea­t­les, in my view, is how they looked at things over times from many points of view. Yel­low Sub­ma­rine seems to be about look­ing at the world from many dif­fer­ent points of view, and how the same object might appear dif­fer­ent­ly and how we can deep­en our under­stand­ing of the world by that prac­tice.

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