The Beatles, it is safe to say, really hit the jackpot. Comprised of four talented songwriters, the group had a lot of material to work with. Over the course of their career, they fine-tuned their songcraft, constantly introducing new elements into the mix to rejuvenate their approach, leaving we lucky listeners with albums that hum with life.
It would be wrong, however, to suggest that The Beatles always got every song right the first time around. Any songwriter knows that a decent track is a slippery thing and can easily evade one’s grasp. Perhaps that’s why John Lennon and Paul McCartney always ensured that when they sat down to write a song, they got the whole thing laid out in one fell swoop.
As McCartney revealed in a recent interview, “Usually I’ll sit down and I’ll start something I fancy doing, you know, either a key that I fancy playing around in – [on guitar] or on piano – and I see where I go to first, I just see where I go first, just see where it leads me. It’s how we always did it,” he said, before continuing: “I would sit down with John and we just sort of follow this road.”
This idea of “following the road” is partly why The Beatles seem to have treated their songs as living organisms. Such an attitude saw The Beatles allow their songs to evolve naturally, leaving us with a wealth of demos and early versions of released and unreleased tracks. Here, we’ve collected five of the best.
The five greatest Beatles demos:
‘A Case Of The Blues’
This gloriously lo-fi recording made by John Lennon in 1968 contains snatches of melody that he would go on to use in tracks like ‘I’m So Tired’ and ‘Cry Baby Cry’.
Half early rock ‘n’ roll recording, half proto-grunge anthem, it’s no wonder both Kurt Cobain and Daniel Johnston have cited this scruffy recording as a major influence on their work.
‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ (Home Demo)
‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ was famously torn apart and then stitched back together again, a process that has made it one of the most intoxicating examples of studio wizardry in The Beatles’ catalogue.
This home demo, however, which features John Lennon singing over a steel-strung acoustic guitar, reminds us that the brilliance of ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ lies in its melody, bewildering lyrics and spell-binding chord progressions.
‘Circles’ (Escher Demo)
This haunting demo recorded in George Harrison’s home in Escher, sees The Beatles guitarist accompanying himself on the organ as he sings about one of his favourite subjects at the time: the eternal cycle of reincarnation.
In contrast to some of the other demos on this list, Harrison’s early version of ‘Circles’ has a distinct studio quality to it, his vocals already multitracked to create a thick layer of warmth.
‘The Palace of the King Of Birds’
I love this outtake from the Let It Be sessions. Originally written by Paul McCartney, the blissed-out instrumental jam features Ringo on drums, George on guitar (hence the twiddling), John on Fender VI bass and Paul on organ.
The beauty of this track is that it sounds completely unlike anything the Beatles released at the time, evoking the psychoactive textures of Revolver and Magical Mystery Tour. What a shame it never found its way onto Let It Be.
‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ (Take 1)
The swirling fog of phased drums and flange-laden guitar lines would be almost entirely unrecognisable if it wasn’t for John Lennon’s iconic radio-static vocals. While the final track used tape loops to form a motoric centre-point, this first take sees The Beatles scrambling to weave various mind-altering musical elements into a cohesive framework
This particular demo is especially fascinating because it reveals something about The Beatles creative process: in that the final version was crafted via a process of subtraction, with only the most essential elements (such as the vocals) being left unaltered.