The Beatles: Great storytellers in song

The Beatles from an early photo as they landed in New York City.

I was introduced to the Beatles in 1964 by my uncle. I was 11 and he was 19 and had purchased the album, ‘Meet the Beatles.’

In my extended family in 1964, buying something as worldly as a secular rock-n-roll record by the Beatles was a pretty bold step. My uncle told me he didn’t care for the music, even if the Beatles were a pop culture phenomenon.

So, he gave me the album.

Beatlemania washed over me like it did millions of other young Americans. I couldn’t get enough.

All this occurred about the time the Fab Four appeared on the Ed Sullivan show. The adults in my life were horrified, of course.

They objected to the long hair (by early 1960s standards) and especially to the “yeah, yeah, yeah” lyrics of the song, She Loves You.

“So disrespectful,” they told me.

I never figured out whom the Beatles were disrespecting. But you couldn’t get away from She Loves You on the radio.

My dad especially disliked the Beatles, as well as my enthusiasm for them. “No one will even remember who they are in 50 years,” he said in frustration one day.

My dad was not Nostradamus, obviously. But he knew what he didn’t like.

Needless to say, I’ve been a Beatles fanboy now going on 60 years. My fandom grew even more after they quit touring and began releasing studio albums, from Rubber Soul forward.

After they left the stage and ditched the matching suits, they really began their run of producing incredible lyrics and memorable songs.

So, as I was listening to a Beatles playlist on my iPhone today, it occurred to me what great storytellers, they were. Especially Paul McCartney and John Lennon.

All of which leads me to the purpose of this blog post. I’m ranking my 10 top Beatles songs that tell a story.

So, here goes with my ranking of their top songs with a narrative from 10 to 1, along a bonus group of songs that didn’t quite make the cut:

No. 10: Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
Narrative: Desmond and Molly meet, marry and build a family in a great sing-along.
Key lyrics:
“Happy ever after in the marketplace
Desmond lets the children lend a hand
Molly stays at home and does her pretty face
And in the evening she still sings it with the band, yes”

No. 9: The Fool on the Hill
Narrative: Town folks are disturbed by old man living alone on the hill. So, they mistakenly think he’s a fool.
Key lyrics:
“And he never listens to them,
he knows that they’re the fools
They don’t like him
The fool on the hill sees the sun going down
And the eyes in his head see the world spinning ’round”

No. 8: Norwegian Wood
Narrative: Revenge. Woman invites man to spend the night, then makes him sleep in the bath.
Key lyrics:
“And when I awoke I was alone
This bird had flown
So I lit a fire
Isn’t it good Norwegian wood?”

No 7: She’s Leaving Home
Narrative: Young girl repressed by her parents sneaks out to make her way on her own
Key lyrics:
“Something inside, that was always denied,
For so many years, 
She’s leaving home”

No. 6: Rocky Racoon
Narrative: Rocky takes his gun to shoot the low-life who stole his girl. Big mistake!
Key lyrics:
“Rocky burst in and grinning a grin
He said, “Danny boy, this is a showdown”
But Daniel was hot, he drew first and shot
And Rocky collapsed in the corner”

No. 5 The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill
Narrative: Great white hunter shoots a mighty tiger for sport
Key lyrics:
“The children asked him if to kill was not a sin
“Not when he looked so fierce”, his mummy butted in
“If looks could kill it would have been us instead of him”

No. 4 Maxwell’s Silver Hammer
Narrative: Crazed young man goes on homicidal rampage in bouncy sing-along
Key lyrics:
“But as the words are leaving his lips
A noise comes from behind
Bang, bang, Maxwell’s silver hammer
Came down upon his head (do-do, do-do do)
Bang, bang, Maxwell’s silver hammer
Made sure that he was dead”

No. 3 Lovely Rita
Narrative: Man intrigued by meter maid’s uniform, asks her out, gets to sit on the sofa with her sisters
Key lyrics:
“Standing by a parking meter
When I caught a glimpse of Rita
Filling in a ticket in her little white book
In a cap she looked much older
And the bag across her shoulder
Made her look a little like a military man”

No. 2: A Day in the Life
Narrative: Man reads news about disturbing car crash, and more.
Key lyrics:
“He blew his mind out in a car
He didn’t notice that the lights had changed
A crowd of people stood and stared
They’d seen his face before
Nobody was really sure if he was from the House of Lords”

No. 1: Eleanor Rigby
Narrative: Downbeat story of loneliness and death of a woman who was buried along with her name. Quite a departure for a rock band. This should have been made into a movie long ago.
Key lyrics:
“Father McKenzie, wiping the dirt
From his hands as he walks from the grave
No one was saved
All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?”

BONUS TRACKS
Penny Lane
Ballad of John and Yoko
Get Back
Happiness is a Warm Gun
Lady Madonna
She Came in Through the Bathroom Window
Piggies
When I’m 64
Hey Jude
Taxman
Blackbird

Merry Christmas from the Family

The Stafford Christmas gathering in Fort Smith, Ark., December 2021

We’ve spent hours (and hours) listening to Christmas music since October, mainly because my wife keeps the radio on her car tuned to a local station that plays nothing but holiday tunes for two full months.

So, that means I’ve had the opportunity to hear plenty of Christmas songs that I love, as well as many that are total clunkers. But they still get airtime.

Here are a few of what I would call secular Christmas songs that are in heavy rotation, as they say in the biz, and what I love or hate about them.:

Happy Xmas (War is Over)

This is a total non-religious ode from John and Yoko to the hope that Christmas and the New Year bring the world. It’s become a favorite of mine over the years. I love the youthful voices in the choir. It’s played over and over throughout the season.


So this is Christmas and what have you done?
Another year over, a new one just begun.

And so this is Christmas,
I hope you have fun,
The near and the dear one
The old and the young

A very merry Christmas
And a happy new year,
Let’s hope it’s a good one
Without any fear

Little Saint Nick

Might as well tackle one that makes me cringe whenever I hear it. I don’t object to the first line as does my friend, Dan, but it’s like the Beach Boys brought surfer music to Christmas with this cringeworthy song. Yuck.


Christmas comes this time each year
Ooh, ooh

Well way up North where the air gets cold
There’s a tale about Christmas
That you’ve all been told
And a real famous cat all dressed up in red
And he spends the whole year workin’ out on his sled

It’s the little Saint Nick (little Saint Nick)
It’s the little Saint Nick (little Saint Nick)…

Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer

Yes, this is a total novelty song, but it cracks me up every time I hear it. Was it really Santa and his reindeer that whacked Grandma? Or perhaps Grandpa had a hand in the “accident?”


Grandma got run over by a reindeer
Walking home from our house Christmas eve
You can say there’s no such thing as Santa
But as for me and grandpa we believe…

Now we’re all so proud of grandpa
He’s been taking this so well
See him in there watching football
Drinking beer and playing cards with cousin Mel…

Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! (Dean Martin version)

This song brings images of Christmas cold and snow and being close to the one you love. Dean Martin brings a sort of smugness to the delivery of Let It Snow that appeals to me for some reason. Also, are there some comparisons to this song with “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” another (slightly more controversial) song that Dean Martin sang as well?


Oh, the weather outside is frightful
But the fire is so delightful
Since we’ve no place to go
Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow

It doesn’t show signs of stopping
And I brought some corn for popping
The lights are turned down low
Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow

When we finally kiss goodnight
How I’ll hate going out in the storm
But if you’ll really hold me tight
All the way home I’ll be warm…

Baby It’s Cold Outside

I simply must go
Baby it’s cold outside
The answer is no
Baby it’s cold outside
The welcome has been
How lucky that you dropped in
So nice and warm
Look out the window at the storm
My sister will be suspicious
Gosh your lips look delicious…

You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch

Another novelty song that dates back to the ’60s, but I’m fascinated by the incredible number of insults the song makes to the foul Mr. Grinch. It’s in the regular rotation of the local Christmas music station.


You’re a mean one
You really are a heel
You’re as cuddly as a cactus
You’re as charming as an eel
Mr. Grinch, you’re a bad banana
Mr. Grinch, with the greasy black peel

You’re a vile one
You got termites in your smile
You have all the tender sweetness
Of a seasick crocodile…

Wonderful Christmastime

This is a huge departure from, say, Helter Skelter or Back in the USSR, for Paul McCartney. But his music has grown lighter and more sentimental since his Beatles days. This song is way overplayed on the local Christmas music station.

Wonderful Christmastime
The moon is right
The spirits up
We’re here tonight
And that’s enough
Simply havin’ a wonderful Christmastime
Simply havin’ a wonderful Christmastime

The party’s on
The feelin’s here
That only comes
This time of year
Simply havin’ a wonderful Christmastime
Simply havin’ a wonderful Christmastime…

I could go on and on about the dozens of secular Christmas songs that we hear all the time or have heard over the years. The Chipmunk Song, anyone? But I’ll end this with a few lines from a favorite of mine from Robert Earl Keen, because everyone has a big, messy family gathering over the Christmas holiday, right? (Disclaimer: alcohol plays no role in our family gatherings)

Merry Christmas from the Family

Mom got drunk and Dad got drunk
At our Christmas party
We were drinking champagne punch
And homemade egg-nog

Little sister brought her new boyfriend
He was a Mexican
We didn’t know what to think of him
‘Til he sang “Feliz Navidad, Feliz Navidad…

Fred and Rita drove from Harlingen
I can’t remember how I’m kin to them
But when they tried to plug their motor home in
They blew our Christmas lights

Cousin David knew just what went wrong
So we all waited out on our front lawn
He threw the breaker and the lights came on
And we sang “Silent Night, oh Silent Night”…

Merry Christmas from our family to yours.

Where were you when you heard the news?

Editor’s note: I’m not sure about you, but I look back on my life and know exactly where I was on certain milestone events.  Some are world events and some are personal. Recently, we’ve had several milestone events that we will look back on and know exactly where we were when we heard the news.

I was sitting in my recliner, holding my 19-month old grandson Friday morning when I saw the news on CNN. Henry Aaron was dead at 86. Another huge piece of my youth gone.

Immediately, I thought back to April 8, 1974. On that evening, I was sitting in the living room of a friend in Mena, Ark., watching Aaron and the Atlanta Braves play the Dodgers. Hammerin’ Hank hit career home run No. 715 that broke Babe Ruth’s record early in the game. It was a milestone that had long been anticipated and marked by a lot of racist ugliness because Aaron was black.  I felt relief that it was finally over.

Aaron’s record HR and his passing were both personal and national milestones that got me to thinking of other big national — and personal — events of my lifetime: where was I when I heard the news?

So, I sat down and compiled a list of what comes to mind.

Nov. 22, 1963 — JFK assassination. This was an incredibly traumatic event both for the nation and a 10-year-old me. I was sitting in a 5th grade classroom at Crockett Elementary in Bryan, Texas, when we all heard the news. My teacher, Ms. Skrivanek, cried. I thought of nothing but that event for weeks.

April 4, 1968 — Martin Luther King assassination. I was a ninth grader living on the island of Okinawa with my military family. I don’t remember exactly where I was when I heard the news. I do know it was traumatic for both the nation and for the thousands of Americans living far from home.

June 6, 1968 — Robert Kennedy assassination. I remember this moment because my family and I were about to board an airplane that would take us to Taiwan for a week of vacation. I kind of felt like the world was coming apart because the MLK assassination happened only weeks before.

July 20, 1969 — The moon landing. This was huge. We got to stay home from Sunday night church to watch the first man step on the moon. My dad was in Vietnam, and I watched it with my mom and my sister in our living room in Fort Smith, Ark. I’m pretty sure we still had a black and white television.

Dec. 6, 1969 — Richard Nixon visits Fort Smith. This is purely personal, and I’ve written about it before. But I was at the airport to greet Nixon as he passed through town on his way to Fayetteville for the Arkansas-Texas football game. I got to shake his hand.

August 16, 1977 — Elvis has left the building. Time marches on and I was in college in Abilene, Texas, working at a small clothing shop. A neighboring merchant came into the store and told us that Elvis was dead. If you aren’t old enough to remember, Elvis was a pretty big deal.

December 8, 1980 — John Lennon murdered in NYC. This one hit me almost as hard as JFK’s death. I was in the living room of a friend in Roland, OK. We were switching back and forth from Monday Night Football to some other show, but Howard Cosell broke the news and we heard it. Devastating. Until that moment, I was still dreaming of a Beatles reunion. No more.

April 19, 1995 — The OKC Bombing. I was a reporter for The Oklahoman sitting in a meeting of the Oklahoma Wheat Commission on NE 63rd Street when the building was rocked by the compression from the bomb about 5 miles south of us. Someone speculated a gas explosion. Someone else an airplane crash. Then someone came into the room and said a bomb had exploded at the federal building. It seems that everyone in OKC knew someone who lost their life or was directly impacted from the bombing. We are still living with the fallout of it.

September 11, 2001 — The Twin Towers. I was about to take my 5-year old son to his pre-K class at Washington Irving Elementary when the Today Show reported that an airplane had hit one of the towers. I thought it must have been a Cessna or something. Little did we know how devastating and traumatic it would turn out to be.

July 4, 2016 — Kevin Durant signs with Golden State Warriors. If you aren’t a Thunder fan, this is no big deal. But I am and it hit me hard. We were at my mother in-law’s house near Hammon, and I was refreshing my computer over and over on KD’s Players’ Tribune page. Finally, there it was, in black and white. Our favorite player was ditching OKC after 8 years. We were devastated.

Jan. 6, 2021 — A day that will live in infamy. Like most of America, I was watching the debate over the Electoral College certification when the mob broke into the Capitol. Insurrectionists, white supremacists, traitors, all the same to me. They are egged on by a would-be dictator not grounded in reality. 

Jan. 20, 2021 — Free at last! Started the day at 6:30 am from my living room watching Trump slink out of town. Then watched and celebrated Biden’s inauguration. A day of promise.