Top 10 Beatles Road Songs
Before any of the Beatles Road Songs on this list were ever created, Rock ‘n’ roll was already about moving -- in a little deuce coupe, downtown train, magic bus or big old jet airliner. The Beatles put a new spin on the road song; who else would dream up a tune about a yellow submarine? And fueled by psychedelics, you could take some trips without leaving your room. Planes, trains, and newspaper taxis, they’re all here. Fasten your seat belt; here are our Top 10 Beatles Road Songs.
Days after the final sessions of ‘Sgt. Pepper’ were completed, Paul McCartney looked to his childhood for the Beatles’ next project. Back in the day, mystery tours were popular with British seasoned citizens; groups of old timers would board a bus not knowing its final destination. After enough ale and song, it didn’t matter to them where they ended up. McCartney acknowledged that the Beatles’ ‘Magical Mystery Tour,’ which became a TV movie and LP, was a metaphor for a drug trip. McCartney’s boyhood fascination with fairgrounds and carnival barkers would inspire the introduction: “Roll up for the Magical Mystery Tour, step right this way!” McCartney later admitted that “roll up” was a veiled reference to rolling a joint.
Though ‘One After 909’ appeared on ‘Let It Be,’ the Beatles’ final album, it was one of the earliest Lennon-McCartney compositions, an attempt to write an American railroad song like ‘Midnight Special’ and ‘Rock Island Line.’ John Lennon’s fascination with the number nine inspired him to write about the train after the 909; he would later compose ‘Revolution 9’ and ‘#9 Dream.’ That’s why we’ve made the song number nine of our Top 10 Beatles Road Songs. The Beatles first recorded ‘One After 909’ in 1963; after four attempts the band failed to come up with a take that producer George Martin felt was good enough to release. Six years later, with Billy Preston on keyboards, ‘One After 909’ was recorded for the filming of ‘Let It Be’ during the concert on the roof of Apple.
The roar of a jet engine opens ‘Back in the U.S.S.R.,’ Paul McCartney’s tongue-in-cheek tale of his “dreadful flight” home to Mother Russia on BOAC. “I wrote that as a kind of Beach Boys parody,” McCartney told Playboy magazine. “And ‘Back in the U.S.A’ was a Chuck Berry song, so it kinda took off from there. I just liked the idea of Georgia girls and talking about places like the Ukraine as if they were California.” ‘Back in the U.S.S.R.’ was written 3,000 miles from Moscow in Rishikesh, India while the Beatles were on retreat. The song was recorded without Ringo Starr, who had temporarily left the group. “I left because I felt two things: I felt I wasn't playing great, and I also felt that the other three were really happy and I was an outsider,” Starr said in the 'Anthology' project. McCartney filled in on drums and played rollicking piano on what became the opening track of the "White Album."
‘The Ballad of John and Yoko’ told the story of the whirlwind marriage and honeymoon of John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Lennon wrote the song as the newlyweds crisscrossed the world to promote peace. Unable to marry in Paris on short notice, the couple wed in Gibraltar. For their honeymoon, Lennon and Ono jetted to Vienna and Amsterdam, where they staged a “Bed-In” for peace. Upon his return to London, Lennon met with Paul McCartney to record the song without delay. As George Harrison was on vacation and Ringo Starr was shooting a movie, Lennon and McCartney provided all the vocals and instrumentation on the track. Recorded in one day, ‘The Ballad of John and Yoko’ was rushed out as a single; it made the Top 10 despite radio station bans due to its controversial chorus: “Christ, you know it ain’t easy / You know how hard it can be / The way things are going / They’re gonna crucify me.”
A spacey sequence of the TV movie ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ featured aerial footage of the frigid North Pole, outtakes of the Stanley Kubrick film, ‘Dr. Strangelove.’ In the book ‘Many Years From Now,’ Paul McCartney said he wrote the melody for an instrumental to use as background to the fly-over footage. “I said, ‘We can keep it very, very simple, we can make it a twelve-bar blues. We need a little bit of a theme and a little bit of a backing.’” The recording started as a jam session that was nine minutes long; it would be edited down to just over two minutes for the album. John Lennon recorded the melody on a Mellotron; later all four Beatles chanted the melody without lyrics. Lennon and Ringo Starr then added various sound effects, which bring the track to an ethereal close.
As the Beatles no longer recorded cover songs by 1966, ‘Yellow Submarine’ was written specifically for Ringo Starr by Paul McCartney. “I remember lying in bed one night, in that moment before you're falling asleep – that little twilight moment when a silly idea comes into your head – and thinking of ‘Yellow Submarine.’” McCartney said in the ‘Anthology’ project. “I thought also, with Ringo being so good with children – a knockabout uncle type – it might not be a bad idea for him to have a children's song, rather than a very serious song.” John Lennon helped with the lyrics as did folk-rocker Donovan, who contributed the line, “Sky of blue and sea of green.” In the studio, the band produced the song’s loopy sound effects with items found around Abbey Road. Lennon created a bubbling sound by blowing into a pan of water with a straw; he shouted lines like, “Full speed ahead, Mister Captain” from the open doors of the studio’s echo chamber. The song was so endearing that it became the basis of the ‘Yellow Submarine’ animated film in 1968… and one of the Top 10 Beatles Road Songs.
When John Lennon and Paul McCartney sing, “You and I have memories / Longer than the road that stretches out ahead,” it’s easy to assume that ‘Two of Us’ is a road song about childhood friends with many years of travel behind them. Instead, McCartney wrote the tune about his soon-to-be wife, Linda McCartney. “When I moved to England to be with Paul, we would put Martha in the back of the car and drive out of London,” Linda McCartney said in the book, ‘A Hard Day’s Write.’ ‘We'd keep driving without looking at any signs. Hence the line in the song, 'Two of us going nowhere.’” Recorded mainly with acoustic guitars, ‘Two of Us’ opens with Lennon, who announces, “‘I Dig A Pygmy’ by Charles Hawtrey and the Deaf Aids. Phase one, in which Doris gets her oats.’” Lennon’s ad-libbed remark, added later by producer Phil Spector, references Hawtrey, a British comedy actor and musician. Deaf aids, to those of us on this side of the pond, are hearing aids.
In ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,’ the Beatles invite you to “Picture yourself on a boat on a river with tangerine trees and marmalade skies” as “newspaper taxis appear by the shore, waiting to take you away.” That imagery, and a title with initials that spell LSD, led fans to believe the song described an acid trip. John Lennon denied it; he insisted that his inspiration was a drawing by his four-year-old son Julian Lennon of schoolmate Lucy O’Donnell. The drawing’s title: “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” But Paul McCartney revealed to The Weekly Standard magazine that the Beatles often slipped drug references into their music. “A song like ‘Got to Get You Into My Life,’ that's directly about pot, although everyone missed it at the time. ‘Day Tripper,’ that's one about acid. ‘Lucy in the Sky,’ that's pretty obvious.”
‘Ticket to Ride’ is the story of a girl who boards a British Railways train headed out of a bad relationship. Paul McCartney said the title has a double meaning; it was a play on the name of the town of Ryde on the Isle of Wight, where McCartney’s cousin and her husband owned a pub. Lennon and McCartney crashed there while hitchhiking in the early '60s; McCartney recalled that he mentioned the trip to Ryde to Lennon while they wrote ‘Ticket to Ride.’ Lennon called the song one of the earliest heavy metal records. “If you go and look in the charts for what other music people were making, and you hear it now, it doesn't sound too bad,” Lennon told Rolling Stone magazine. “It's all happening, it's a heavy record. And the drums are heavy, too. That's why I like it.” We do too; it’s one of our Top 10 Beatles Road Songs.
When Paul McCartney and John Lennon met to write ‘Drive My Car,’ McCartney’s idea did not involve travel. “The lyrics I brought in were something to do with golden rings, which is always fatal.” McCartney said in the book ‘Many Years From Now.’ “Somehow it became 'drive my car' instead of 'golden rings,' and then it was wonderful because this nice tongue-in-cheek idea came and suddenly there was a girl there, the heroine of the story, and the story developed.” The girl admits at the close, “I have no car… but I found a driver and that’s a start.” McCartney revealed she wasn’t talking about saving 15 percent or more on car insurance. “‘Drive my car’ was an old blues euphemism for sex, so in the end all is revealed. Black humor crept in and saved the day. It wrote itself then. I find that very often, once you get the good idea, things write themselves.”