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8 min read

We will have to pretend that none of these songs are about drugs: self-medicating with recreational drugs to cope with mental distress seldom ends well. Nevertheless throughout the Beatles’ oeuvre, there are many songs that stand out for their astute reflection of various complex and contradictory emotional and mental states, giving voice to difficult feelings in a way that makes them understandable. I felt that a collection of some of their songs, particularly the ones from Revolver and Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, might be a reassuring and tongue-in-cheek reflection on such tumultuous states of mind. When it’s hard to talk about mental health, it might be easier to be able to do so through Beatles songs.

  1. I'm Only Sleeping The Beatles
  2. A Day in the Life The Beatles
  3. I Want to Tell You The Beatles
  4. Help! The Beatles
  5. I'm So Tired The Beatles
  6. Yer Blues The Beatles
  7. Yesterday The Beatles
  8. I'm a Loser The Beatles
  9. Nowhere Man The Beatles
  10. She Said She Said The Beatles
  11. Strawberry Fields Forever The Beatles
  12. Fixing a Hole The Beatles
  13. Across the Universe The Beatles
  14. Octopus' Garden The Beatles
  15. Doctor Robert The Beatles
  16. We Can Work it Out The Beatles
  17. Getting Better The Beatles
  18. With a Little Help from My Friends The Beatles
  19. Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey The Beatles
  20. I Feel Fine The Beatles
  1. ‘I’m Only Sleeping’: It is rather fitting to start with an overwhelming sense of lethargy and weariness. Everything about this song is sluggish, with a dragging beat and an overwhelming mood of exasperation. The surreal intrusions by the heavily distorted guitar just add to the strain of having to deal with the bustle of life. But there is a reassuring self-awareness in this song of one’s need to withdraw from people who are ‘running everywhere at such a speed’, a wry acceptance: ‘Everybody seems to think I’m lazy / I don’t mind / I think they’re crazy’. But above all, there is a sense of awareness and control: no matter how weary one is, there’s still a sense of being fully attuned to these feelings by ‘keeping an eye on the world going by my window’.
  2. ‘A Day in the Life’: Tim Riley remarks that this song, appearing at the end of Sgt Pepper’s, ‘casts a shadow that sets all other songs (and the Beatles’ own career) in perspective’, commenting on ‘how listening to a pop record relates to what’s happening when the show is over’[1]. But it feels just as appropriate as a song that starts this list as it does round off another record: the song is weary, and the distant, hazy feel of Lennon’s voice at the start really captures the listlessness and despair of starting the day by reading the news and waking up to a world of despair. But what makes this song remarkable is its duality, and its vacillation between the hazy bleakness of Lennon’s verses and the rousing, upbeat urgency of McCartney’s section. The overwhelming torrent of sound that marks the transition between them heightens this sense of confusion, and alternating between the agonising lows and frantic rush of the everyday uniquely characterises a sharp sense of emotional instability.
  3. ‘I Want to Tell You’: Though Revolver is a rather bleak album, full of conflict, disillusionment and pain, this song stands out for its yearning for connection. It is one of my favourite Harrison contributions. It speaks to the overwhelming difficulty at trying to initiate a conversation with people who care about you, and no matter how carefully one rehearses a plea for connection and understanding, ‘all those words / They seem to slip away’. There is also the confused confession ‘If I seem to act unkind / It’s only me t’s not my mind / That is confusing things’. But despite these frustrations, there is still the reassurance: ‘I can wait forever / I’ve got time’.
  4. ‘Help!’: While I do gravitate strongly towards the complexities and layers of Sgt Pepper’s, Revolver or Rubber Soul, I’d be remiss not to add in something like ‘Help!’: it is as desperate a cry for intimacy and care as ‘I Want to Tell You’ is laboured, and though it is deceptively upbeat and racing — panting out lines that are overwrought with too many words ‘I know that I / Just need you like’ to give it a real sense of urgency — it nevertheless evokes an abiding sense of vulnerability.
  5. ‘I’m So Tired’: Another somnolent daze from Lennon, but this one I particularly like because of how well it slides from a hazy listlessness to jagged anger and frustration, with the exasperated shout ‘I’d / Give you everything I’ve got for a little peace of mind’, before falling back again into the lethargy and fatigue. There’s also a sense of how disrupted all of this quiet is because of the alcohol and cigarettes only aggravating this depressive state.
  6. ‘Yer Blues’: Sometimes, you just need to scream into the void. (N.B.: Samaritans can be called in the UK at their toll-free helpline 116 123.)
  7. ‘Yesterday’: J.M. Coetzee, in his correspondence with Arabella Kurtz published in Salmagundi, describes a clear distinction between depression and melancholy. This song is perhaps clearly melancholic: there is an acute vulnerability and sense of loss, a longing for a time previously when things were happier, but through an evident self-awareness that does not let these feelings become as disruptive, overwhelming or crushing as in other songs.
  8. ‘I’m a Loser’: This is what impostor syndrome sounds like, with a smattering of clowning and self-deprecation.
  9. ‘Nowhere Man’: Sometimes, self-deprecating laughter is the best way to come. I love this song so much, and mostly because of the sardonic wisdom ‘Isn’t he a bit like you and me’, which is a surprising moment of empathy in an otherwise pitiful depiction of someone who seems so utterly lost and confused in the mess of their own emotions. But there is also a note of kindness, to ‘leave it all / Till somebody else lends you a hand’.
  10. ‘She Said She Said’: What makes many of these songs so poignant is that Lennon himself was so emotionally conflicted, and as Riley notes that is really apparent in the intensity of this song, wrestling inadequacy, helplessness, fear, defencelessness, and worthlessness at the smallest of misunderstandings[2]. This entire song, with its confusing web of pronouns with no clear referent and tangled narrative, really adds to the anxious commotion in one’s head. It is driven by Lennon’s ‘bottomless sense of abandonment’ at the core of his pain[3]. One of the most heart-rending insights into Lennon’s life and his fear of abandonment is in a letter he sent to Stu Sutcliffe saying ‘I remember a time when everybody I loved hated me’, something I saw in an exhibition at the British Library.
  11. ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’: Lennon’s sense of abandonment is manifest even more strongly in this song, perhaps augmented by his experience of hallucinogenic drugs. Everything comes together here: a difficulty in making connection (‘no one I think is in my tree’), the impossibility of putting all these conflicting feelings in words (with so many hesitant reformulations of lines, beginning ‘I mean…’) and an exasperated nihilism (‘It doesn’t matter much to me’), all in the hazy, dream-like textures of a longing for childhood innocence.
  12. ‘Fixing a Hole’: There is no other song that better captures the drudgery and slow progress of cognitive behaviour therapy than this one, with the long list of chores like ‘filling the cracks that ran through the door’ or ‘painting my room in a colourful way’. There is a sense of optimism in the labour here, a real belonging in the present, and a concerted effort to fix a problem.
  13. ‘Across the Universe’: Just as CBT is one way of coping, mindfulness is another. Personally, I prefer the Let it Be… Naked edition because of the clearer sound, but then again the shimmering textures of the original album does have its own complexity and charm.
  14. ‘Octopus’ Garden’: This isn’t the only underwater, childlike, escapist fantasy featuring Ringo that I harbour, but where ‘Yellow Submarine’ is wacky cartoonish, ‘Octopus’ Garden’ is just comforting.
  15. ‘Doctor Robert’: I remember a time when I naïvely thought this song was about a physician rather than a drug dealer. Bearing in mind my deliberate pretence that none of these songs are about self-medicating using recreational drugs, I’d just like focus on the positive mood of the song and the want to feel better (let’s face it, all Beatles songs are about drugs, except when they mention drugs because then they’re about a child’s drawing of a girl in his class).
  16. ‘We Can Work it Out’: I am getting to the tail end of this list, where I really want to keep things positive. So maybe I will just keep to the songs that seem to suggest that no conflict, no matter how complicated, cannot be worked out by talking through it.
  17. ‘Getting Better’: The casual nod to intimate partner abuse makes me very uncomfortable (helpline 0808 200 0247), and even more so when the song attempts to excuse it with the difficulties at school. But I like the song for its relentless, upbeat optimism, and I think I’d need it here for that reason.
  18. ‘With a Little Help from My Friends’: This one is perhaps the most tenuous one here, but nevertheless it is worth acknowledging the kindness and care of people around us who help us get by.
  19. ‘Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey’: Again, never mind the background of Lennon and Ono taking heroin, it’s just nice to have a song that just screams ‘Take it easy’.
  20. ‘I Feel Fine’: Everything about this song, right from the opening feedback and distortion, never fails to cheer me up. And I thought it worthwhile to end on a positive, upbeat, and optimistic note.

References:

[1] Tim Riley, Tell Me Why: a Beatles Commentary, (London: Bodley Head, 1988), 225.
[2] Ibid., 188.
[3] Ibid., 190.


Acknowledgement: My thanks to Eleanor Gray for the inspiration for this piece, and the discussion of Lennon’s letter to Sutcliffe.