The Beatles’ Ten Most Interesting Spiritual Songs
It’s hard to name a band that has had the influence on music that the Beatles did. For just a few years, the Beatles made music together, but their impact has lasted for decades. From sweaty soul covers to innocent love songs to albums that turned rock into art, the Beatles elevated their genre.
The Beatles have also explored spirituality in their songs, both as a band and in their solo careers. As their careers progressed, they moved from the simple theme of boy-loves-girl to higher themes. Here’s a list of their most interesting spiritual songs.
(Full disclosure here: I’m not a universalist. I believe that the only way to eternal life is through Jesus Christ. When I point out themes that run counter to Christianity in these songs, I’m not advocating these views, and you’ll see my worldview pop up on this list from time to time. You’ve been warned.)
10. “Imagine,” John Lennon (1971)
Not long ago, I ranked “Imagine” at the top of my list of overrated songs. Almost everybody seems to treat this song as though it’s the ultimate call for peace in the world, but it's really just atheist, socialist dreaming set to elevator music. Even though this list covers spiritual songs by the Beatles, “Imagine” makes the list because Lennon actually envisions a world with nothing spiritual in it whatsoever.
It stands to reason that the man who once generated controversy by claiming that his band was “bigger than Jesus” would advocate for nothing but the here-and-now, but when you really think about it, the ideal world that Lennon pictures in “Imagine” is pretty sad and dull.
One author suggests that, as the ‘70s went on, Lennon either embraced Christianity or came close, only to have Yoko pull him away from faith. That’s too bad, because I love the idea of John Lennon reconciling with the God who created and loved him. It’s a much better scenario to imagine than “Imagine.”
9. “Let It Be” (1970)
Some people believe that Paul McCartney’s references to “Mother Mary” signify a vision from the Virgin Mary, but he has claimed that he was thinking about his literal mother Mary when he wrote the song, so I’m inclined to believe him that he’s not talking about Jesus’ mom.
However, I’m also inclined to believe that McCartney was seeking something outside of this existence when he says that “there will be an answer” for the “brokenhearted people living in the world.” By the end of the ‘60s, the Baby Boomer generation was questioning so much that modern culture had taken for granted, so it makes sense that someone would be looking for answers instead of just posing questions. Of course, I believe that those answers come in a relationship with Jesus Christ, but who knows what spiritual framework McCartney was working from at that time.
For years, a generation of young people had looked to the Beatles first as entertainers and later as cultural harbingers. Hippies had flocked to Eastern religions and mysticism in part because the Beatles experimented with it. Fans had treated the band as idols unlike any the world had seen before or since.
It’s poignant that “Let It Be” hit number one the week McCartney announced the band’s breakup. The message of the song turned as much into “let it be” as in “leave it alone” as much as it was “let it be” as in “let the answers come.”
8. “All You Need Is Love” (1967)
As brilliant as the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album was, Capitol never released any singles from it in the U.S. Instead, the Beatles gave the world a gift during the Summer of Love with the deceptively simple single “All You Need Is Love.”
You didn’t have to be a hippie to appreciate the message of the song. The message of love is something we could stand to hear at every point in history. John Lennon called it a protest song – maybe because everybody was protesting something or another at that time.
Even though it’s not specifically religious or spiritual in nature, the idea of the power and necessity of love is something that adherents to nearly every faith can understand and get behind. Lennon may have been a bonehead, but when he got things right, he got them really right.
7. “The Inner Light” (1968)
Sometimes the Beatles would release a B-side that was almost as interesting as the other side of the single. George Harrison’s “The Inner Light” was the flip-side of the smash hit “Lady Madonna,” and it continued his obsession with Indian music and religious themes.
The song is a short piece that’s fascinating for its heavy Indian influence – and for being the first Beatles track that the band recorded outside of Europe. Harrison wrote “The Inner Light” from his experiences with transcendental meditation, and it was a tribute to scholar Juan Mascaró, who put together an anthology of religious writings. Harrison based it on an instrumental tune he recorded in India earlier in the year. It’s a tribute to the notion that one can achieve a higher plane through meditation.
Harrison’s lyrics claim that one can “arrive without traveling, see all without looking, [and] do all without doing” through meditation. George Harrison went wholeheartedly into his belief in Eastern mysticism, and “The Inner Light” proves how much of a true believer he was.
6. “God,” John Lennon (1970)
John Lennon had the reputation of being a spiritual seeker, but he was a first-class provocateur as well. Witness his first album, 1970’s John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. Among its songs that cemented Lennon’s notoriety for ruffling feathers – and making pretentious statements - was the song simply titled “God.”
On this track, Lennon explains his religious views, or lack thereof. Twice in the first verse, he calls God a “concept by which we measure our pain,” and then he goes on to list what he doesn’t believe in. That list included a litany of religious and cultural figures. After that, he settles on the fact that he just believes in himself and Yoko.
The final verse is sort of a thematic flip-side to “Let It Be"; Lennon tells Beatles fans that “the dream is over” and that they should just move on. It’s really a sad song, to see someone express the fact that he doesn’t really believe in anything higher than himself (and the woman who broke up his band and dragged him down a road of pretention).
5. “Fool on the Hill” (1967)
Everybody talks about John Lennon’s “I Am the Walrus” as the high point of the Magical Mystery Tour album, but it doesn’t hold a candle to Paul McCartney’s gorgeous chamber-pop masterpiece “Fool on the Hill.”
The song describes a mysterious man whom the world fails to understand – and even calls a fool – even though he possesses wisdom. McCartney had men like the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in mind when he penned the song, but the concept also calls to mind 1 Corinthians 1:27, where the apostle Paul says that “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise…” Who knows whether McCartney had this scripture in mind or if he had even heard of it?
Alistair Taylor, a friend of the band who worked as the assistant to manager Brian Epstein, recalled a walk with McCartney where the two talked about the existence of God. A mysterious man joined them and walked with them for a while. Taylor claims that the incident inspired McCartney in part to write the track.
4. “Motor of Love,” Paul McCartney (1989)
In 1989, Paul McCartney released Flowers in the Dirt, my personal favorite full album of his (and the first record I ever bought on CD). The album gained a reputation for the top 40 hit “My Brave Face” and the collaborations with Elvis Costello, but two of its tracks pointed in a prayerful direction.
The second track on Flowers in the Dirt was the rocker “Rough Ride” about a man’s desire to make it to heaven to be with God. But the most powerful song was the closer (not counting the weirdo bonus track "Où est le Soleil?"), the beautiful ballad “Motor of Love.”
“Motor of Love” sounds like a personal declaration of worship – a modern psalm, even. McCartney sings of how his “heavenly Father” has given him real love and joy and saved him when he was “down and out.” He never specifically mentions Jesus by name, but the language of devotion certainly suggests the God of the Bible.
It’s a gorgeous song, soaring and melodic – we shouldn’t expect anything less from McCartney. I don’t presume to guess the state of Paul McCartney’s soul, but if “Motor of Love” is any indication, there may be hope for my favorite Beatle.
3. “Tomorrow Never Knows” (1966)
The Beatles closed the Revolver album with one of their best examples of experimental psychedelia. “Tomorrow Never Knows” was a pastiche of distorted recordings, unusual sounds, and a killer drumbeat from Ringo.
What puts “Tomorrow Never Knows” on this list is the lyrics, which John Lennon copped from a book by Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert, and Ralph Metzner that examined the Tibetan Book of the Dead. The Tibetans wrote the prayers and meditations in the original book to prepare people for death and the hereafter, while the 1960s' authors intended their examination of the prayers to apply to countercultural types taking LSD. George Harrison believed that Lennon didn’t understand his own lyrics.
Lennon wanted the engineers to record his vocals through a Leslie speaker cabinet so that he would sound like Buddhist monks chanting on a mountaintop. He wasn’t happy with the end result, but he loved the song enough to play it for Bob Dylan, who reportedly treated the song dismissively.
“Tomorrow Never Knows” turns out to be a fascinating track, but Lennon’s lyrics are really just hippy-dippy mumbo-jumbo. If you get past the lyrics, you can enjoy a strange sonic experience and a perfect experimental ‘60s time capsule.
2. “My Sweet Lord,” George Harrison (1970)
These days, people know George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” as the song that lost the plagiarism lawsuit. The publishers of the Chiffons' single “He’s So Fine” claimed that Harrison had stolen the melody for “My Sweet Lord” from their hit, and a judge ruled that the Beatle had inadvertently plagiarized “He’s So Fine.” Harrison claimed that the Edwin Hawkins Singers smash “Oh Happy Day” inspired “My Sweet Lord,” but he clearly took an inspiration that he didn’t realize from the Chiffons.
In reality, “My Sweet Lord” is Harrison’s most overtly spiritual hit single, and most of the song expresses a devotion to God with which most believers can identify. Harrison sings, “I really want to know You” and alternates between “it takes so long, my Lord” and “it won’t take long, my Lord.” The lyrics sound like a genuine journey of faith in the life of someone who desires a relationship with God.
The backing vocals tell the story that takes the tune from one that believers in the God of the Bible can understand to a typically Harrison-esque Eastern mysticism. Up until the instrumental break, the backing vocalists sing “Hallelujah” – Hebrew for “praise the Lord,” but after the break, they switch to the Hare Krishna mantra. Harrison said that he switched the vocal lines to show that all religions are similar in their desire for closeness with God.
If you take the Krishna mantra out, “My Sweet Lord” could almost stand as a worship tune. With all of Harrison’s lyrics, you have to watch out who you’re worshipping.
1. “Within You, Without You” (1967)
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band still stands as one of the most influential albums in rock history. Listeners recognize it as a high point in the famed Summer of Love, and it’s one of the best testimonies of the Beatles as an art-rock band.
George Harrison brought attention to Indian music through Sgt. Pepper’s. The track “Within You, Without You” demonstrated for one of the first times how Harrison sought to bridge the gap between Eastern and Western musical styles. He also brought a heavy dose of Eastern spirituality to the world in the song.
“Within You Without You” explores the divide between materialism and devotion to higher things. The Hindu philosophy that had seized Harrison permeates the track – even though he also quotes Jesus in his references to “people who gain the world and lose their soul.” It’s mesmerizing, even if it dates itself to the countercultural days immediately.
The fascinating thing about “Within You Without You” is that there’s a universal idea that people of faith, regardless of what they believe, can understand. The notion that there’s something more than the here and now, that “life goes on within you and without you,” is a notion that all religions have in common, which may be why this song resonates with people who don’t espouse Hinduism.
There's the list! Are there any songs that you think belong on this list? Let me know in the comments section below.