In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Of all the Beatles songs that made it to #1 in the US — and there were so, so many of them — “Ticket To Ride” is, for my money, the best. It’s the one where it suddenly became obvious, to anyone paying attention, that being world-dominating pop stars wasn’t enough for this band. It’s the moment it became obvious that they were going to use their position as world-dominating pop stars to bend and twist and pull the sounds on the radio, translating them into something new, something wild. It’s a transitional moment for the Beatles. And it’s the transitional moment where everything that was ever great about them — the melodic fire, the excitement, the wandering-spirit restlessness — came together into something beautiful.
John Lennon wrote most of “Ticket To Ride,” though Paul McCartney has taken credit for a decent chunk of it. And Lennon once called “Ticket To Ride” “one of the earliest heavy metal records made.” He was wrong, and he was wrong for interesting reasons. The real early heavy metal bands — including Vanilla Fudge, who released their cover of “Ticket To Ride” two years after the Beatles’ original came out — turned blues progressions into something leaden and overwhelming. That music was heavy because it dragged you down into its sodden, wrathful headspace. But what makes “Ticket To Ride” sing is its lightness — the way it’s always dancing away from you.
There are sounds on “Ticket To Ride” that had never made it anywhere near the top of the charts before. There’s George Harrison’s glistening Rickenbacher riff — a starry-eyed jangle that helped make the world safe for the Byrds and for the psychedelic folk-rock hordes that would follow. There’s the low-end drone of the bass, which foreshadowed the Beatles’ interest in Indian ragas. There’s Ringo Starr’s awkwardly perfect stop-start drumming, which sends electric shocks pulsing all through the song.
These things should’ve made brains explode when the Beatles suddenly brought them to the radio. Maybe they did; I wasn’t around to tell. But the Beatles didn’t hit #1 just by indulging their most experimental impulses. “Ticket To Ride” resonated the way it did because the band figured out how to plug these impulses into one hell of a pop song.
“Ticket To Ride” is a song about heartbreak. Lennon opens it up by wailing, “I think I’m gonna be sad / I think it’s todaaaaaay.” At the beginning of that line, he’s calm, sober, almost matter-of-fact. But by the time McCartney joins in on harmony, he’s wailing at the heavens. Throughout the song, Lennon tries to reconcile the idea that the girl is leaving, that there’s nothing he can do. And it sounds grown-up and mature, in ways that no previous Beatles song had done. Lennon is not singing about teenage heartbreak. There’s a line — “she said that living with me was bringing her down” — that suggests cohabitation. Lennon is contemplating an uncertain future, and the sounds that he’s bringing are adult, as well.
But they’re not too adult. As the song ends, the band lurches suddenly into a double-time rave-up — as if to prove that they can still supercharge your soul, or to mentally force themselves out of the song’s depression-fog. It sounds like the acid-rock wig-outs that would show up atop the charts soon enough, but it also sounds like a honky-tonk throwdown. (“Ticket To Ride” did, after all, appear on the same album where the Beatles covered Buck Owens.) “Ticket To Ride” was the first Beatles single that broke the three-minute mark — but it only broke it by 10 seconds. It’s a toe-dip, a dabble, in the waters of the infinite. It’s the sound of a band starting to bend pop music, not quite ready to break it yet. They’d break it soon enough. But on the songs where they did break it — at least on the ones that hit #1 — I don’t think they ever sounded quite this great.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Hüsker Dü’s glorious lo-fi psych-punk cover of “Ticket To Ride,” recorded for an NME 7″ compilation in 1986: