Book Review: ‘All the Songs—The Story Behind Every Beatles Song’

All the Songs book cover

Last month, I reviewed the exhaustive Bob Dylan: All the Songs—The Story Behind Every Track, by Philippe Margotin and Jean-Michel Guesdon. I’ve now had the opportunity to look over the similarly conceived All the Songs—The Story Behind Every Beatles Release, which Margotin and Guesdon wrote in collaboration with Scott Freiman, a composer and producer who has taught a course on the Fab Four at Yale.

Note that I say I’ve looked over the Beatles book rather than read it. That’s because, like the Dylan volume, it is gargantuan and, at nearly 700 oversized pages, more suited to browsing than to cover-to-cover perusal. That said, the book—which includes 600 or so black-and-white and color photos—is quite a browse.

Along with a preface by Patti Smith, a brief foreword, several essays on the Beatles’ formative years, and commentary on each LP, you’ll find sections on each of 213 songs, including every one of the group’s singles and studio album tracks. These write-ups detail the songs’ genesis and production; where and when they were recorded and mixed; how many takes were performed; who actually wrote the numbers (as opposed to who’s credited on the record label); and who played on them.

You’ll also find a ton of trivia, the vast majority of which is not included in the original albums’ notes, You’ll learn, for example, that the Beatles recorded 26 takes of “Strawberry Fields Forever”; that 13 musicians played along with the group on “Penny Lane” (including George Martin on piano); that Ringo didn’t perform on “The Inner Light” because he was off guesting on Cilla Black’s BBC show; that backup singers on “Yellow Submarine” included Marianne Faithfull and Mick Jagger; and that Paul used the same fuzzbox on his bass for both “Think for Yourself” and “Mean Mr. Mustard.” You’ll also read that Ringo walked out on the group during the recording of “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” leaving Paul to play drums, and that “I Want to Hold Your Hand”—which John and Paul recorded the day after they wrote it—sold 10,000 copies an hour in New York alone after the Beatles performed it on the Ed Sullivan Show.

For some people, the response to all of this will undoubtedly be “Who cares?” And if that’s what you’re thinking, this is obviously not the book for you. But if you’re among the countless fans who soaked up every note of Beatles music as it was being released and who have subsequently played it over and over for approximately another half-century, you’re bound to find this volume endlessly fascinating.

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