Taxman - For the first (and only) time, a composition by Harrison is considered to be strong enough to kick off an album. This is a dynamite rocker with a mocking lyric about the Beatles' tax situation. The guitar work is sharp throughout, and the impressive solo is played not by George, but by Paul. George's influence is present, however, because according to Tim Riley, Paul is playing in a nondiatonic scale based on Indian music. Paul and John also provide the backing vocals which vary at different points in the song, sometimes doing a call-and-response with George's lead, sometimes merely adding harmony.
What leads us into the song and the album is equally interesting. We hear coughing, tape being rewound and George doing a laid-back count-in before the band begins playing. Paul does the real count-in underneath at a different tempo, so the effect is jarring. We are listening to the sounds of the studio, given just a peek behind the curtain before the music begins. This is a major transition from Paul's "One, two, three, four!" count-in to the live-in-the-studio album Please Please Me, reminding us of just how far the band has come in a little over three years.
Eleanor Rigby - This excellent song by McCartney was released as a single the same day as the album, and is covered in my previous blog. Stylistically, it stands in stark contrast to George's rocker, immediately setting up the eclectic nature of the album.
I'm Only Sleeping - A lethargic mood piece by Lennon rounds out the introduction of the band's three composers (George achieves a new status by virtue of this layout). The lyric describes John's very real withdrawal from the everyday world at this point in his life. Vari-speed is used here to speed up John's vocal for the first time, and slow down the instruments, as they had done on Rain. Another carry-over from Rain is the use of backwards tape, this time for guitar. Mark Lewisohn points out in The Beatles: Recording Sessions that George spent an entire session working out how he wanted his solo to sound, then notated it in reverse before he played it so it would come out right when the tape was run backwards. A time-consuming process, no doubt, but one that is indicative of just how much time and work they were now willing and able to do to achieve exactly what they wanted.
Love You To - Harrison's second song on this side takes Westerners to a new sonic world. Since the recording of Norwegian Wood, George had been taking some serious lessons on the sitar and studying Indian musical forms. Here, he attempts an actual raga, abetted by a tabla player named Anil Bhagwat, who is credited in the liner notes. The free-form, spacious opening of the song would later be used to introduce the cartoon character of George in the film Yellow Submarine.
Here, There and Everywhere - An absolutely gorgeous ballad by McCartney, regarded by many as his most perfect composition. It stands out even more since it is one of the only love songs on the album. The lyric alone is beautiful, with each verse using a place from the title as a starting point. And the melody is perfection itself - so much so that the instrumentation is as basic as can be and the backing vocals are simple block harmonies.
Yellow Submarine - I covered this song as a single in my previous blog. One footnote to that entry - although Ringo had already secured a vocal on a few singles on Capitol Records in the US, this is his one and only single as a frontman in the official Beatles catalog as released by Parlophone Records in the UK.
She Said She Said - A distorted guitar opens this powerful side closer by Lennon. Inspired by an LSD-fueled encounter in Los Angeles in 1965 with actor Peter Fonda, who told John about a near-death experience he had had, Lennon wrote this unsettling meditation on existence. The band which had applied such a delicate touch to McCartney's Here, There and Everywhere only two tracks earlier cuts loose here with a vengeance. The guitars, bass and drums are relentless throughout. In an interview with drummer Max Weinberg of the E Street Band for the book The Big Beat, Ringo stated that he felt his best work ever was on the track Rain from these sessions. His work here is equally impressive, simultaneously driving the band forward yet keeping it all together through numerous time changes. A virtuoso performance.
The UK and US versions of the album are even more similar than the two versions of Rubber Soul. There are no substitutions - only songs recorded for this album are included. The US version merely omits I'm Only Sleeping on side one, but that omission limits Lennon to only one song - not at all what one would expect on a typical Beatles' album.