Al Di Meola: my top 10 favourite Beatles songs
The matchless catalogue of The Beatles is perhaps the most covered in music history. From major artists such as Neil Young and David Bowie to quirky celebrity interpretations by William Shatner and Eddie Izzard, it seems as if anybody who has ever been anybody has tried their hand at a Beatles remake.
But for all-out originality and unabashed reverence, guitar master Al Di Meola's recent all-acoustic re-imaginings of 14 Lennon-McCartney classics on the album All Your Life stands as one of the most beautifully realised and brilliantly sustained tributes ever.
And make no mistake about it: The jazz fusion legend is no Johnny-come-lately when it comes to the Fab Four. "I've always loved The Beatles," Di Meola says. “As a kid, I saw them live on Ed Sullivan, which was just extraordinary. They changed everything in one night. My sister is seven years older than I am, and she and her girlfriends were totally into The Beatles. I had the pleasure of playing some of her friends’ guitars, and that really helped bring me into the whole idea of wanting to take lessons. But The Beatles kicked the whole thing off; it was a captivating new sound.”
From The Beatles, Di Meola was introduced to unique chord changes, which he says, "are things that every jazz artist has utilized over the years. The Beatles employed such beautiful harmonic elements into their songs that are just unbelievable. And every single song is so wonderfully melodic without sounding goofy or kitschy – there's a brilliance to that." But Di Meola also stresses that it was the power of The Beatles as singers that put their songs over the top: "To this day, I’m amazed at what a brilliant vocal team John and Paul formed – and George, too, was right in there. They sounded so much better than all the other groups at the time – and they still do."
In recording All Your Life, Di Meola's intention was simple: to keep things simple. Each song was performed in a stripped-down acoustic manner, and any percussion was achieved by the guitarist either slapping the wood body of his instruments (his signature Al Di Meola Conde Hermanos nylon-string model, a Gibson steel string and a 1948 Martin acoustic) or by muting the strings to provide the rhythms.
"It's an approach that really worked," he says "Let’s face it: The Beatles already did huge productions of their music, and a lot of artists who have done these songs tried to follow suit. I didn’t want to go there. I mean, you can't top those productions, so why even try? So I came up with a way to play the music with syncopation that has an originality to it.”
To record All Your Life, Di Meola made the pilgrimage to the place where it all began: London's Abbey Road Studios, which he describes as "a magical place, with the best-sounding rooms I've ever been in." To his amazement, he found that very little has been changed in the studios since the days when The Beatles were fixtures behind its hallowed environs. "It's the same floor, same walls, same everything," he enthuses. “We used a lot of the equipment that The Beatles used – the same microphones. It was an incredible experience, and I think being there really helped to create the right mood that I was trying to capture on this record."
And that extends to the intangibles, as well. "The Beatles' presence is still in that place no matter where you go," Di Meola observes. "In every room, you just feel them. Even the smell was distinctive. If you asked Paul McCartney about the smell in Studios 1 and 2, I think he’d know what I’m talking about. There's no place on this planet quite like Abbey Road. I'm so glad that I got the chance to make this record there. It was the single most rewarding experience I've ever had."
You can purchase Al Di Meola's All Your Life at iTunes. On the following pages, the guitar virtuoso runs down his top 10 favourite Beatles songs.
Strawberry Fields Forever
“Without a doubt, this is one of the greatest songs ever made, if not the greatest. It’s perfect in every way: the melody, production, creativity, lyrics. It’s a magical creation from start to finish.
“I mean, you really have to consider how remarkable it is. We had not heard anything like it ever before – ever. I still listen to it and am amazed at its beauty and the visions it conjures. It blows away anything being done today times a million.
“I wasn’t looking to top it. Who could? Nobody can top it. I was just looking to put my own rhythmic stamp on it and take it into my own world a little bit.”
NEXT: I Am The Walrus
I Am The Walrus
“For some of the same reasons as Strawberry Fields – you never heard anything like it until it came into existence. It’s as if there were no precedent for it. You listen to it and go, ‘Where in the world did this even come from?’
“You can tell that John was entering a very exciting period in his songwriting. He wanted to get away from ‘I love you, I love you.’ Obviously, he and the other guys were experimenting with whatever was hip at the time drug-wise, which oddly enough, was a good thing – it stretched their imaginations. Even though the lyrics can be nonsensical, it expanded your mind and brought you into what he was thinking.
“And it’s just a flat-out great song. As a pure melody with harmony, it’s wonderful. A child can sing this song – and all of the other ones – and that’s cool.”
“It wasn’t one of my favourites at first, but I grew to really love it while cutting it. I had a Beatles book and went through it to see what would work well on the guitar, what would feel good. And as soon as I started arpeggiating it and putting my kind of signature style to it, giving it a bit of that Latin 6/8 vibe, it really changed my mind.
“I kept the melody the same, but I changed some of the phrasing here and there. It worked really well in that regard. It’s a beautifully written song. If you look at the harmonies, it’s just gorgeous. It’s deep.”
“This song still boggles my mind. How Paul was able to do something so complex in its parts and sing to it at the same time – it’s extraordinary. It remains one of his most brilliant pieces.
“As much as I love Paul’s version, I decided to do my own thing with it. Again, it would be silly to try and ‘copy’ it per se. Lots of people have tried, and they just never come close to the original.
“The video of Paul playing it during the making of the 'White Album' is phenomenal. The music just poured out of him.”
“It’s one of the great ones. In my first years of taking guitar lessons, I had a teacher who was more of a jazz guy, but he loved The Beatles, too. I think all jazz people love The Beatles. They get it – they understand the integrity and aesthetic of that music.
"This wasn’t just a pop hit or a bunch of long-haired guys appealing to teenaged girls. Michelle is a deep piece. It puts you under a spell right away. One of the best love songs ever.”
NEXT: Penny Lane
“One of my all-time favourites. But I’ll tell you, it was probably the hardest piece to play, maybe the hardest songs I’ve tried to play, in my whole life. Because of the way that I approached it, and the syncopation that was applied, it took a lot to pull it off. It took a lot of practice.
“If you go to the original song and the way The Beatles played it, it’s a very deep piece aesthetically and harmonically. The melody is amazing. And what about the storyline and the lyrics? It’s just outrageously good.
“Not many songs can bring you somewhere you’ve never been and make you see it. Penny Lane takes you to this little village in Northern England; you can picture the rainy day and the firemen running into the barbershop. The Beatles could take you on a journey. As their career developed and they advanced and experimented, they brought you along with them.”
NEXT: Day Tripper
“This song didn’t wind up on the record, but it’s still one of my favourites. I loved it when I was a kid, and I still do. That riff is one of the coolest ever – it’s just the best.
“So even though it didn’t translate to the way I wanted to approach the songs on this record, that certainly doesn’t take away my enthusiasm for it. It’s a fabulous song through and through.”
NEXT: Paperback Writer
“Another enormous riff. It just leaps out at you. I love the way they pulled the song off. There’s a lot of energy to it.
“This was at the start of the mid-period, where they were about to get away from the love songs in a way. It’s got a story to it, too. I remember hearing it on the radio as a kid and thinking that it sounded so good.”
NEXT: She's Leaving Home
She's Leaving Home
“Interestingly, this is another one that wasn’t one of my favourites at first, but when I started investigating it by playing it, I realized just how beautiful it really is. Because Sgt. Pepper is such a strong record, and this is one of its more mellow songs – and let’s face it, the message is pretty sad – it didn’t announce itself to me. I was more into things like Getting Better.
“But I started working with it and it got to me. As a ballad, it’s beautiful, simply gorgeous. And it makes the audience cry – they get it. So I really developed an appreciation for it.”
NEXT: A Day In The Life
A Day In The Life
“It’s one of the purest melodies of all time. When you can shut the lyrics off and just hone in on the melody, that’s when you say to yourself, ‘Man, this is as deep as it gets.’ But at the same time, you can sing it so easily.
“Of course, the song has so many other things going for it. The production, the lyrics, the storylines, the mood shifts – all of it unprecedented. It's mainly John’s, but Paul did the middle section. Two such different pieces of music that worked so seamlessly. Those two guys had a healthy competition. Paul had his thing and John had his thing, and together they were unbelievable.”