How The Beatles Reviewed Songs Topping the Charts During the 1960s: Hear Their Takes on the Beach Boys, Ray Charles, the Byrds, Joan Baez & More

In the year 1966, “it seemed to Western youth that The Beatles knew — that they had the key to current events and were somehow orchestrating them through their records.” So writes Ian McDonald in the critical study Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties. But some had been looking to John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr as pop-culture oracles since they put out their first album in 1963. Unlike the youth-oriented stars who came before, they fully inhabited the roles of both performers and creators. If anyone knew how to read the zeitgeist of that decade, surely it was the Beatles.

Hence the appearance of each Beatle in Melody Maker magazine’s “Blind Date” feature, which captured its subjects’ spontaneous reactions to the singles on the charts at the moment. When Lennon sat for a Blind Date in January of 1964, he gave his verdict on songs from Manfred Mann, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Ray Charles, and Ricky Nelson — as well as the now-less-well-known Marty Wilde, Millicent Martin, and The Bruisers.

You can see the article turned into a full audiovisual production, complete with clips of the music, at the Youtube channel Yesterday’s Papers. There you can also compare its playlist to that of McCartney’s session just three years later, but on a transformed musical landscape populated by the likes of The Small Faces, Donovan, the Lovin’ Spoonful, and the Byrds.

For that last California band McCartney expresses appreciation, if also reservations about what then seemed to him their stylistic stagnation: the late David Crosby, he notes, “knows where they should be going musically.” Other than calling the then-passé Gene Pitney’s “In the Cold Light of Day” a song he’s heard “hundreds of times before, although I haven’t actually heard this record,” he keeps his assessment characteristically positive. More surprising are Starr’s harsh verdicts on the pop music of December 1964, not just the songs themselves (though the Shangri-Las’ “Leader of the Pack” notably fails to impress him), but also the judgment of the audiences they target. “Being good,” he says of the Daylighters’ “Oh Mom,” “it won’t sell.”

Of Sandra Barry’s “We Were Lovers (When The Party Began),” Starr comments that it “sounds like an Englishman trying to be American, which never works properly.” Having grown up worshiping American rock-and-roll and started their own careers anxious about being received as foreign interlopers, the Fab Four show a natural sensitivity to this transatlantic dynamic in pop music. “It’s good if it’s English, mediocre if it’s American,” says Harrison of a song before finding out that the singer is his countryman Glyn Geoffrey Ellis, better known as Wayne Fontana. “Those breaks are so British,” Lennon says of a Unit 4 + 2 single of December 1965, and he doesn’t seem to mean it as a good thing. But when McCartney calls a Kiki Dee number “British to the core” the following year, it’s hard not to hear a note of admiration.

On Yesterday’s Papers’ Blind Date playlist, you can see and hear more nineteen-sixties and seventies music reviews from Mick Jagger, Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix, Dusty Springfield, Frank Zappa, Brian Jones, Roger Daltrey, Eric Clapton, Roger Waters, Syd Barrett, and many other icons of twentieth-century popular music besides.

Related content:

The Kinks’ Ray Davies Reviews the Beatles’ 1966 Album Revolver; Calls It “A Load of Rubbish”

Chuck Berry (RIP) Reviews Punk Songs by The Ramones, Sex Pistols, The Clash, Talking Heads & More (1980)

Hear the 10 Best Albums of the 1960s as Selected by Hunter S. Thompson

89 Essential Songs from The Summer of Love: A 50th Anniversary Playlist

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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