A splendid time is still guaranteed for all…
ESSAY: As the Beatles’ back catalogue is reissued, Ed Barrett salutes the world’s most brilliant, inventive and humorous pop group.
On the fiftieth anniversary of the release of their first single ‘Love Me Do’, read Ed Barrett’s 2009 essay on The Beatles.
In 1963, less than a year into their recording career, the Beatles were asked about their prospects.
Paul McCartney suggested that he and John Lennon might become professional songwriters for other acts. George Harrison hoped to have enough money ‘to go into a business of my own by the time we do flop’. And Ringo Starr had already set his sights on a string of hairdressing salons. It was hardly surprising that they were thinking ahead: the group had already exceeded expectations by achieving two chart-topping singles and a number one album, and the experience of previous acts suggested that the ‘flop’ would come sooner rather than later. ‘How long are we going to last?’ pondered Lennon. ‘You can be bigheaded and say, “Yeah, we’re going to last 10 years”, but as soon as you’ve said that you think: “We’re lucky if we last three months”.’
In the end, the Beatles managed another six years, by which time they had conquered the planet and become the biggest popular music act of all time. By then the mythology surrounding them had grown so suffocating that Lennon spent most of 1970 trying to be a normal person again. ‘I don’t believe in Beatles’, he sang on his solo album that year. ‘The dream is over.’ Yet here we are in 2009, living the dream once more – in virtual reality with The Beatles: Rockband game, and in high fidelity with state-of-the-art reissues of the most famous back catalogue in popular music. So let me re-introduce to you the act you’ve known for all these years…
Forty years after the Beatles ceased to be a functioning group, their music remains as popular as ever. Hence the extraordinary level of interest in the Apple/EMI remasters of their core catalogue. These replace the unloved 1987 CDs, produced when digital technology was in its infancy and artwork consisted of a flimsy slip of paper. Together they constitute the most eagerly awaited restoration project in pop history, and it’s worth considering the reissues before looking at the music itself.
The stereo remasters include all the original non-compilation British albums, along with the US version of Magical Mystery Tour and the Past Masters compilations of stand-alone singles and other loose ends. This is significant because the Beatles’ relationship with stereophonic recording is complicated and at times confusing.
Most Beatles albums were mixed in mono first and foremost, and the stereo mixes were often little more than an afterthought. The two versions were often markedly different – not only in their overall sound, but in the prominence given to individual instruments, the addition of extra segments, and so on. More importantly, they were subjected to a notoriously crude form of separation, whereby the vocals were channelled through one speaker and the backing music through another.
As one would expect, the stereo reissues bear no resemblance to their stereo forebears. They have been painstakingly transferred from original analogue master tapes and a great deal of discussion took place about how to utilise the latest digital technology without compromising the integrity of the sound, as well as how much ‘restoration’ should be allowed – for example, correcting clicks, pops, sibilance and bad edits. The results will not be to everyone’s taste, but overall they are a big improvement on previous stereo versions of the earlier albums. Having said that, anyone who loves the Beatles, or simply wants to know what all the fuss is about, is advised to head straight for the mono masterpieces.
Mono is the way this music was meant to be heard – on transistors, juke boxes, portable Dansettes and big wooden radiograms that looked like sideboards, and it had to sound great on all of them. (Not for nothing did American producers play their mixes through car radios to make sure they hit the spot.) One has only to compare any artist’s mid-Sixties vinyl 45s and 1970s reissues to understand the difference. The grooves on the originals are so wide you can read them with the naked eye, and take up twice the space of some later pressings. Put them on a record player and the difference is just as striking: the former are loud and cavernous; the latter anaemic at top volume. An original Parlophone pressing of ‘She Loves You’ is a raucous, barrelling force of nature, ‘Day Tripper’ batters you into submission, and ‘Ticket To Ride’s’ sonic boom really does shake the room. Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band might have set new standards in sophisticated production, but it packed a powerful punch too, and Lennon himself believed the mono mix was the only way to hear it.
These mono remasters are the closest you will get to the original experience without spending a considerable amount of time and money collecting original vinyl. They come in a box set containing all the albums that were mixed in mono – Please Please Me (1963) to The Beatles (1968) – plus a Mono Masters double-disc roughly equivalent to the stereo Past Masters. As a bonus, they sport miniature replicas of the original sleeves with all the trimmings. It’s the Beatles Compleat in packing most neat, and a worthy showcase for the marvellous music within.
Beatles For Sale
On 11 February 1963 at EMI’s Abbey Road studios in London, the Beatles recorded 11 songs, 10 of which would appear on their first long-playing disc. In those days ‘the pops’ was very much a singles game, and ‘LPs’ were created by the simple expedient of taking a couple of previous 45s and padding them out with rubbish composed by managers, producers and other leeches in order to earn ‘songwriting’ royalties. (Two hits and 10 pieces of shit, as Keith Richards memorably put it.)
Beatles for sale album cover
The Beatles’ first LP promised ‘“Please Please Me”, “Love Me Do” and 12 other songs’, which might suggest a cynical acknowledgement of Richards’ maxim. Nothing could be further from the truth. There were two hits, for sure, and some covers of other people’s; but they were classy, and supplemented by an impressive selection of self-penned originals. It was an integrated piece of work that set new standards: pop would never be the same again.
With The Beatles came out just seven months later and contained no singles at all, even though most acts would have killed their grandmothers for a hit as good as ‘All My Loving’. The Beatles didn’t need to release it because that year, in addition to two great albums, they released three chart-topping singles, comprising six exclusive self-compositions. The third album went further still, consisting entirely of Lennon-McCartney compositions. All in all, in the period 1963 to 1965 they released six albums (plus non-album singles), made two feature films and played more than a thousand concerts. In their spare time, they wrote hits for other artists (1).
With such a workload, they could have been forgiven for letting standards slip. Yet the overall quality was amazing. Every album has at least one single-that-never-was, and several songs strong enough to become hits for others. Even the ‘filler’ is better than other bands’ best material.
Their singles rewrote the rulebook, too – particularly the B-sides, which had traditionally played the ‘piece of shit’ role to lucrative effect. Beatles’ flipsides like ‘Rain’ and ‘I Am The Walrus’ were superior to most ‘greatest hits’, while their stand-alone double-A-sides – ‘Day Tripper’/‘We Can Work It Out’ and ‘Penny Lane’/ ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ – were two of the best singles ever made.
Had contemporaneous singles been included on LPs at the expense of the odd substandard track, their albums would have been almost flawless. ‘She Loves You’/‘I’ll Get You’ and ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’/‘This Boy’ could have been contenders for With The Beatles. ‘I Feel Fine’ would have boosted Beatles For Sale and ‘Day Tripper’/‘We Can Work It Out’ would have made Rubber Soul pretty much perfect. Other options were ‘Paperback Writer’/‘Rain’ (Revolver) and ‘Hey Jude’/‘Revolution’ (The Beatles). The exception to the rule is ‘Penny Lane’/‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, recorded along with ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’ in late 1966, which doesn’t fit Sgt Pepper and rightfully remained in splendid isolation as a singular jewel of British psychedelia. (It eventually found a home on the American Magical Mystery Tour.)
The With the Beatles album sleeve
showed off their unique visual style
One other element of the catalogue deserves comment: the sleeves. Every picture tells a story, and the 12.5-inch x 12.5-inch images that graced the Beatles’ LPs truly merit the overused word iconic. With The Beatles set the standard with a serious, studenty look – half-lit black-and-white portraits in the style of their German friend Astrid Kircherr (who also bequeathed them their trademark hairstyle). Subsequent sleeves would become as famous as the music within, and are subjected to homage, pastiche and parody to this day.
They are a visual testament to a culture clash that could have been a disaster, but turned out to be a marriage made in heaven. The cool, stylish pictures are framed within the conventions of an earlier era, with manufacturers’ logos, corporate typefaces, formal sleeve notes and advertisements for Emitex record cleaner. (Looking at these laminated monuments to British manufacturing, one is reminded that the Beatles were awarded MBEs for services to exports.) They also symbolise the way in which band and record label shaped one another. EMI was a company of the old school – its recording engineers wore collar-and-tie and white lab coats. At the height of ‘Swinging London’, Beatles producer George Martin could have passed for a grammar school master. Studio practices were similarly strict, with manuals setting out rules on how to record.
Yet the relationship between these consummate professionals and the enthusiastic youths who landed in their laps shows how the tension between discipline and self-expression can stimulate, rather than stifle, artistic development. Within a few years, these same engineers were enthusiastically creating the increasingly outlandish effects demanded by Lennon and McCartney. Martin, meanwhile, worked tirelessly to broaden the horizons of his protégés and realise their unformed ideas.
McCartney – the 1969 version
Beatles sleeves also tell another, very human story. Lay them out and you are struck by how brief the journey was from fresh-faced debutants to world-weary veterans. Although Help! shows young four young men on the cusp of their most creative period, the strain of touring was taking its toll. The accompanying film – a droll celebration of their youthful charms – contains one scene in which the glamorous gear is set aside and the boys disguise themselves as old men with hats, glasses, moustaches and beards. Four years later, incredibly, they really looked like this. Bearded, puffy-faced McCartney resembled a refugee from The Band, while Lennon was in a shocking state, with wide-brimmed hat, granny glasses and a big red beard.
Ever the realist, and never completely losing his sense of humour, it was Lennon himself who was responsible for the best illustration of this change. The Beatles’ 1969 album was intended as a ‘back to basics’ exercise, revealing the group warts and all. John suggested that for the cover they replicate the pose used for first LP, on the stairs at EMI head office. In keeping with the ironic tone, the album sleeve would use the same graphics and bear the legend: ‘“Get Back” with “Don’t Let Me Down” and 12 other songs.’ (2)
Let It Be (as it was eventually entitled) was exhumed in 1970 and released posthumously after the band split. Phil Spector played the role of undertaker, tarting up the corpse as best he could. Its bloated packaging – a box with a 174-page book – was a world away from the elegance and understatement of their prime, and the NME described it as a ‘cardboard tombstone’. Right to the end, you could always judge a Beatles record by its cover.
Postwar baby-boomers measured out their lives, not in coffee spoons, but in Beatles records. Each new release was a staging post for ‘Beatle People’ like Carolyn Roberts, who sent poems based on song titles to The Beatles Monthly Book, and Brenda Howard, who made regular trips to Heathrow with her home-made banners (‘IT’S GEAR TO HAVE YOU BACK BEATLES!’).
For the real children of the Sixties, born slightly later, the Beatles were part of the scenery from the word go. As infants we strummed plastic Beatles guitars and learnt the songs by heart, like nursery rhymes and hymns. All but the very squarest families had at least one Beatles record, and we pieced together the repertoire house by house.
Rubber Soul album cover
The resulting education wasn’t merely musical. The Beatles gave a glimpse of the grown-up world, with rivalries and relationships laid bare in the matter-of-fact lyrics. Flipping the friendly ‘Yellow Submarine’ was a disconcerting enough experience for adults, who understood exactly why the lonely spinster Eleanor Rigby wore a ‘face that she keeps in a jar by the door’ to keep up appearances when she ventured into the outside world. To a six-year-old like myself, it was a real face in a jar, like a melting Dali watch. The subtly distorted cover of Rubber Soul was similarly disturbing, with the Beatles’ discoloured elongated features resembling drowned corpses in a lake.
Later records struck a chord in other ways. British psychedelia, with its colourful Edwardiana and Lewis Caroll weirdness, was perfect for kids. ‘I Am The Walrus’ would never become a regular on ‘Junior Choice’ – it was banned by the BBC for using the word ‘knickers’ – but we appreciated its strange logic better than anyone, and experienced a special frisson from its ‘rude’ lyrics and disrespectful demeanour at a time when such things were still taboo. To us, the Beatles were a magical band of older brothers who had nothing to do with the mundane world around us.
It wasn’t just kids who loved them, of course. In one broadsheet critic’s opinion they were ‘the best songwriters since Schubert’, and this was no empty hyperbole. The Beatles were all things to almost all people, and for a few glorious years they united toddler, pensioner, teenybopper, egghead, square and mod. Those untouched by the magic were fools, liars or Stones fans.
The Fab Factor
What made the Beatles so fantastically popular? Reading much of today’s coverage, one could be forgiven for thinking that they were just a bunch of wannabe celebrities who struck lucky. Just as historical heroes are now scrutinised for their ‘ordinary’ qualities, so the Beatles are viewed through the prism of X-Factor culture – the return of the vapid ‘light entertainment’ that they swept aside. Routinely cited as the first ‘boy band’, the argument has it that they were manufactured, packaged and marketed to an audience excited as much by the haircuts as by the music.
Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein
Even allowing for manager Brian Epstein’s considerable presentational talents, the comparison is wholly misplaced. The Beatles redefined popular music and achieved worldwide stardom on an unprecedented scale, and they did so on their own terms. Epstein sold ‘the boys’, but apart from a wardrobe makeover (sorely resented by Lennon) he never tried to fundamentally change them. Geographically, they were 200-odd miles away from the Denmark Street impresarios with their teen idol fodder. In every other sense, they were from another planet. The likes of Larry Parnes looked for malleable young men to turn into two-dimensional pin-ups. The Beatles, by contrast, were already seasoned veterans of unforgiving northern clubs and the wild bars of Hamburg’s Reeperbahn. They were clever, talented, funny, self-assured and ambitious. Crucially, they were also a tight-knit group whose close relationship had seen them through a hard apprenticeship and given them the resilience to overcome the initial knock-backs. They backed their own talent and did it their way.
This ambition was tempered by self-awareness and self-deprecation, which only added to their appeal. Their self-confidence was allied to a down-to-earth, approachable image, symbolising a new era in which being ambitious and working-class was no longer seen as a contradiction in terms. Yet even as they were clasped to the nation’s bosom, they maintained their spikiness, and Lennon was enough of a loose cannon to give every encounter an edge. His most famous quip, when he invited the Queen Mother to ‘rattle your jewellery’ during a live televised Royal Command Performance, is often used as an evidence of the group’s cheeky charm. Less well known is the fact that Epstein was on the verge of a heart attack in the wings because Lennon had threatened to tell the Queen Mum to ‘rattle your fucking jewellery’. In the event Lennon managed to have it both ways, as Beatles usually did.
This combination of ambition and character was not just a case of disarming journalists and winning hearts and minds: it was crucial to the music itself. At their early hard-won recording sessions they had the balls to turn down material they were given by George Martin and put their own songs forward instead. Right from the start, their personality shone through: there was never any mistaking the Beatles sound.
Like most bands of the time, they were influenced by Fifties stalwarts like Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Carl Perkins and the Everley Brothers, and their debt to rockabilly and country is obvious on their first six albums. But they were quick to pick up on new developments, too, and covered several Brill Building hits by the early Sixties ‘girl groups’. (As early champions of Tamla pioneers like Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye, they helped to broaden the appeal of many other artists in the process.) Whatever material they chose, though, it always ended up sounding like a Beatles song.
This ability to impose their personality was helped considerably by their distinctive vocals. Lennon possessed one of the greatest rock voices of all time, and it was enhanced by the way it melded with McCartney’s and, to a lesser extent, Harrison’s. Individually, too, each Beatle was instantly recognisable. And unlike the Elvis wannabes, they sang in their own accents in a way that was both unusual and completely natural. The overall result was a new and unique sound (3).
At their peak, in the years 1963 to 1967, the Beatles’ antennae were finely tuned to scenes around and beyond them. They kept abreast of everything and absorbed anything that took their fancy. McCartney is usually portrayed as more mainstream than Lennon, yet in this respect he was far more inquisitive than his partner, who always professed himself a rocker at heart. Against McCartney’s ‘twee’ side should be balanced his interest in classical music and the avant-garde. (His unreleased sound-collage ‘Carnival of Light’ predated Lennon’s ‘Revolution No 9’ by 18 months.)
This eclecticism should not be allowed to overshadow their innovation. They foraged and borrowed because they were open and adventurous, and this impulse ensured that they added, improved and transformed whatever raw materials they were using, as well as introducing new ideas of their own. In turn, they influenced everyone around them – including their own heroes at Motown.
The Beatles weren’t technically brilliant musicians, although both Starr and McCartney had highly distinctive styles. Lennon famously described Ringo as ‘not even the best drummer in the Beatles’, but he was imaginative and versatile, and perfectly suited to band’s music. McCartney was a guitarist until Stuart Sutcliffe quit, whereupon he took up (and mastered) bass. He went on to redefine rock bass-playing with the fat, bouncing style that boosted the group’s recordings so dramatically in 1966 and 1967. McCartney, Lennon and Harrison could all pick up instruments and play them, and they approached music-making from a fresh, untutored angle.
McCartney was blessed with a supreme sense of melody and an inspired ability to find solutions to musical problems – hence his additional value as a collaborator. Lennon was an inspired and unorthodox composer, although he was amused by, and dismissive of, any attempt to analyse his talent. He utilised an Aeolian cadence on ‘Not A Second Time’, yet was unaware that he had done so until he read a review by the classical music critic of The Times.
The Beatles’ producer George Martin, alongside McCartney and Starr
These compositions were enhanced by George Martin, who used the studio as an instrument rather than a passive recording device. Together they grabbed the baton from Fifties visionary Les Paul and ran off into the distance. Their most technically accomplished recordings were made with rudimentary equipment, which only adds to the achievement: the extraordinary soundscape of ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, for example, was created with a double-tracked vocal filtered through a Leslie speaker and a cacophony of manually operated tape loops.
Martin’s arrangements usually hit the spot, although there were times when less would have been more. (His mock-baroque keyboard solo was shoehorned into ‘In My Life’ at Lennon’s request, and not necessarily for the best.) Win or lose, however, their experiments were more enjoyable than the ‘authentic’ fare served up by purists like Eric Clapton and soulless stylists such as the Rolling Stones.
The rate at which the Beatles developed was staggering; only David Bowie has ever achieved anything comparable. Six months after their debut single, Beatlemania began with ‘From Me To You’ (number one for seven weeks and virtually forgotten today). A mere three years and one month later, following the transitional Rubber Soul, they entered the Studio Years with the experiments described above.
Even within the different phases, the variety was enormous. The ‘psychedelic’ Sgt Pepper has a full, warm sound and is full of humanity, nostalgia, playfulness and sly humour – a world away from the sensory assault of the previous year’s ‘Rain’, ‘She Said She Said’ and ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’. Lennon’s ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and ‘I Am The Walrus’, on the other hand, are personal visions of a type that only Bob Dylan would have had the ability or inclination to pursue.
By the end of the decade their artistic powers were on the wane
Their most glittering achievements tend to obscure the depth of their talent. The magnificent jewels are paraded endlessly, while numerous other gems are overlooked or even forgotten. The singles-that-never-were, groundbreaking experiments, and landmark tracks are almost as familiar as their famous chart-toppers. Other tracks are unfairly overlooked simply because they don’t happen to have a backward-guitar solo, or a trumpet part inspired by the Brandenburg Concerto. Among their number are classy pop songs like ‘Don’t Bother Me’ from With the Beatles, ‘Every Little Thing’ from Beatles For Sale, ‘You Won’t See Me’ and ‘I’m Looking Through You’ from Rubber Soul and ‘I’ll Be Back’ from A Hard Day’s Night (a pleasingly downbeat conclusion to the album-of-the-film-of-Beatlemania).
Last but not least, and one of the most neglected aspects of the Beatles’ appeal, is their sense of humour. Broadcasts and press conferences were lit up by their repartee, to the extent that the media were completely disarmed. This and the best efforts of the emollient Epstein were usually enough to ensure that the press turned a blind eye to Lennon’s acerbic quips, simmering aggression, and uncontrollable urge to do ‘spastic’ impersonations on stage and Nazi salutes from balconies.
Their humour won over George Martin, too, and they in turn were impressed that he produced the Goons. His comedy sound effects were used to good effect on the amusing fan club records as well as novelty tracks like ‘Yellow Submarine’. The general atmosphere of the Beatles’ studio sessions owes something to this tradition, with banter conducted in silly voices, and jokes slipped into many ‘serious’ tracks – partly, no doubt, to puncture any suggestion of pretentiousness. Lennon’s self-pitying ‘Girl’ includes a schoolboyish backing vocal by McCartney (‘tit, tit, tit’), while ‘Revolution No 9’ – easily the most controversial and anger-provoking track in the Beatles catalogue – is similarly undercut by the tongue-in-cheek lullaby ‘Goodnight’ which follows (4).
Clowning aside, there is an irresistible joie de vivre in much of the music. Look no further than the uncomplicated open-heartedness of ‘All My Loving’, the saucy optimism of ‘Lovely Rita’, and the ecstatic ‘GLA-A-AD!’ that closes ‘She Loves You’ in unforgettable fashion. ‘I’m in love and it’s a sunny day’, sings Paul in the exuberant ‘Good Day Sunshine’. Has anyone ever put it better?
And in the end…
Conventional wisdom has it that the Beatles quit at the top with their legend intact, while their contemporaries stagnated over the following decades. It’s certainly true that their final years were successful in commercial terms, and they enjoyed three chart-topping albums and seven number one singles in the US and UK between 1968 and 1970. It is also true that their popularity masked a significant artistic decline.
The Beatles shaped their times, but they themselves were shaped by their surroundings, and it is no coincidence that their slump coincided with a general decline in music, and the self-conscious separation of pop and rock. The former was now for ‘teenyboppers’; the latter for ‘grown-up’ fans.
Before this fateful separation, the music industry didn’t really distinguish between different types of pop. The press treated singles by Cream, Traffic and Jimi Hendrix much the same as those by Herman’s Hermits or the Hollies – they were all just potential ‘hits’ and ‘misses’. In 1967 no one thought it odd that a determinedly arty group like the Doors, who took themselves very seriously indeed, could have a number one single and schoolgirl fans. They were a pop group, and that was what pop groups did.
Popular music criticism, inasmuch as it existed at all, consisted of desultory, arbitrary and often misguided track-by-track descriptions. So ‘Drive My Car’, in the single-sentence judgement of the NME’s Allen Evans, ‘Sounds out of tune but isn’t quite, and diction of John and Paul is slurred at times’. And through his eyes, ‘She Said She Said’ (one of Revolver’s more challenging numbers, based on John Lennon’s fraught conversation with Peter Fonda during an acid trip) was ‘about a girl with morbid thoughts being put right by boy’.
Value for money was a recurring theme in the reviews of the mid-Sixties, and this was often at the expense of artistic considerations. When Bob Dylan’s double-album Blonde on Blonde was released in 1966 it was judged as food was in those days – by the size of the portions. Unfortunately for Dylan, 72 minutes of music was not regarded as good value for 50 shillings. Sgt Pepper, too, was treated as just another snack platter by the NME, and given the usual bite-sized song-by-song treatment (5). (In 1974, a new generation of NME writers would vote Sgt Pepper and Blonde on Blonde equal first in a poll of the best albums of all time.)
Joe Cocker represented a distinct
By 1968 even the music journalists had grasped the fact that things were changing. ‘Serious’ musicians were establishing a new order, and this sea change was symbolised by a single Beatles number: ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’ – the ‘Ringo song’ from Sgt Pepper. When Joe Cocker released his cover version, the accompanying ad featured a cartoon Starr with a speech bubble that ran: ‘Hey Joe, don’t make it bad… Take a sad song and make it better.’ The contrast between the dapper drummer, pictured in his Carnaby Street clobber, and the wild-looking Cocker could not have been clearer. It was a graphic illustration of the divergent ‘pop’ and ‘rock’ sensibilities that had now emerged.
The Beatles’ version of ‘Friends’ managed to be all things to all people. The underground picked up on the drug references and interpreted the song as a display of countercultural solidarity. The disc jockeys, teenyboppers and mums and dads simply tapped their feet to its catchy tune.
It perfectly demonstrates the levity that prevented Sgt Pepper tipping into pomposity, with the jaunty arrangement and sardonic backing vocals nicely complementing Ringo’s deadpan delivery. ‘What do you see when you turn out the light?’ sing John and Paul knowingly. ‘I can’t tell you, but I know it’s mine’, comes the poker-faced reply. The effect is nonchalant, witty, and slightly risqué. Like much of the Beatles’ best work, it has a lightness of touch and an irresistible charm.
Cocker’s version, by contrast, is heavy with a capital ‘H’. In place of playfulness and understatement he offers nothing but blood, sweat and tears. Stand well back as he pumps this diffident slip of a song full of steroids and turns it into the Incredible Hulk. It’s groundbreaking, certainly – but then so is a sledgehammer. And this was just the single: for a master class in overkill, witness the moaning, groaning, nine-minute version performed at Woodstock. The grotesque mismatch between form and content brings to mind the Nineties TV ads in which a Janis Joplin sound-alike shrieked ‘whoaaaaaah Bodyfoo-oo-oorm!’ in praise of a sanitary towel.
This little story sums up what happens when concision, intelligence and fun are replaced by ‘authenticity’, elongation and self-importance. By the time Joe Cocker was sitting atop the charts, the Beatles themselves had succumbed to his hairy, sweaty ways. No longer at the cutting edge, they were now producing poor imitations of dull musical trends that were totally unsuited to their own style. ‘Yer Blues’ (on 1968’s The Beatles, also known as ‘The White Album’) gave dire warning of the decline, and worse was to follow.
The year 1969 began with the bad-tempered sessions for the aforementioned ‘back to basics’ project that would show the Beatles ‘naked’ without fancy concepts and studio trickery. By this time, however, the naked truth was distinctly unattractive, as the band churned out their dreary new numbers and endless plodding versions of old chestnuts. The results were so bad that its release was vetoed, and McCartney set about organising a replacement album.
Abbey Road – overrated
With smoke and mirrors, he and George Martin managed to turn a hotch-potch of workouts and cobbled-together fragments into the most over-hyped Beatles album of all: the shiny but shallow Abbey Road. Shorn of its ridiculously inflated reputation, it cuts a sorry figure. The first side consists of dross like ‘I Want You’ (horribly but revealingly subtitled ‘She’s So Heavy’ and described by Robbie Robertson as ‘noisy shit’). The second side brings to mind Alan Partridge’s tribute to McCartney’s Wings, ‘the band the Beatles could have been’.
It’s easy to see where it all went wrong; the question is, why? The major factor was unquestionably Lennon’s steady withdrawal into his own private world. Once he became totally preoccupied with himself, his natural scepticism and humour no longer acted as a brake on either his own indulgences or McCartney’s.
Lennon had always put his trust in the emotional power of music – it was this that attracted him to primitive rock’n’roll in the first place, and he had stayed loyal to it in the face of snobbery from his art-school contemporaries. His favourite self-compositions had always been the most personal and truthful, and this attitude was confirmed and intensified by LSD. The initial effects were there to see in 1966 and 1967 when his unique visions were painstakingly reconstructed in the studio to produce startling aural settings for his intense lyrics.
By 1968, though, his individualism had become an intellectual justification for self-indulgence: if art is personal, then anything personal must be art. This was the polar opposite of the Beatles’ previous modus operandi, in which songs were reworked and honed until they were judged to be good enough for release. To make things worse, Lennon’s introspection led to an outpouring of misery, which would culminate in the ‘primal therapy’ album immediately after the Beatles split. Genius is pain, declared Lennon, and for listeners it was the old story: I’ve suffered for my art, now it’s your turn.
Lennon’s self-indulgence coincided with the coming of age of the blues-boom generation. With handfuls of downers and trucks full of Marshall stacks they transmogrified into the rock dinosaurs that would roam the stadiums of the world for the next decade. Sharpness and invention were out, and the music became as dull and rancid as the lank hair, greasy denim and stinking tennis shoes of the musicians themselves (6).
McCartney became the de facto leader after Lennon’s withdrawal, and he fought to keep the group together in the face of indifference from the others. Unfortunately, while his work ethic remained high, his inspiration declined. Without a partner to spark him and act as a creative foil, even his best songs lacked the crucial ‘Beatle’ factor.
Lennon and McCartney
during happier times
Lennon had always helped McCartney play to his strengths. He distrusted McCartney’s ‘professional songwriter’ tendencies, which were the opposite of his own philosophy of self-expression. In particular he disliked ‘novelist’ songs that told stories for the sake of it (‘boring people doing boring things’). As a foil he could curb McCartney’s sentimental excesses and add a much-needed twist of Lennon – he claimed, for example, to have written the ‘face in the jar by the door’ line in ‘Eleanor Rigby’. As a friendly competitor, he could spur McCartney on to better things. When he gave up on the partnership it left the way clear for McCartney to foist songs like ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ on the group. Having failed to make the cut for ‘The White Album’ – no mean achievement in itself, given some of the material on that album – its appearance on Abbey Road was the last straw.
The Liverpool echo
‘People keep talking about it as if it’s the end of the Earth’, complained Lennon after the dissolution. ‘It’s just a rock group that split up, it’s nothing important – you can have all the records if you want to reminisce.’
His words fell on deaf ears, and the Beatles legend – and industry – went from strength to strength. In the aftermath of the split there was a tiresome quest to discover ‘the new Beatles’. ‘T.Rextacy’ and ‘Rollermania’ were small-scale re-enactments of Beatlemania, while Pilot, 10cc, ELO and more or less any group with pretty melodies and block harmonies were held up as musical heirs. The quest for a successor was eventually abandoned and the focus switched back to the originals. Capital Radio launched in London and played Beatles songs all day long, and throughout the Seventies there was a series of compilations, a live album, and the reissue en masse of all the singles.
Punk temporarily consigned the Beatles to the sidelines (Glenn Matlock was supposedly kicked out of the Sex Pistols for liking them), but it was business as usual again after John Lennon’s death. The Beatles catalogue was released on CD in 1987, and Q magazine was launched the same year, to attract a lost legion of ageing fans. Old became ‘gold’, and Q begat Mojo with its endless Beatles specials. Britpop begat Beatlemania once again in the mid-Nineties as Oasis recycled ‘Rain’, Ian MacDonald published his engrossing Revolution In The Head, and Apple released the best-selling Anthology series. Since then, the bandwagon has kept on rolling, and nobody was surprised when the new reissues sold in massive quantities just as the originals did half a century ago.
The passing of time merely confirms the Beatles’ pre-eminence. Motown produced sublime dance music, Bob Dylan and Brian Wilson were touched by genius, and the Who and the MC5 were unmatched in their explosive brilliance. Love and other mid-Sixties mavericks made classic records in brief bursts. The Beatles did so much more, and changed everything in the world of popular music. They played their instruments, wrote their own songs, demanded artistic control and created the modern rock group in the process. They invented the album and then reinvented it four years later. They introduced the idea of progress and then progressed at a rate that left their rivals standing. Above all, they touched the lives of hundreds of millions across the globe.
The last word goes to a young fan interviewed before the Shea Stadium concert in August 1966. ‘The Beatles bring joy to the world’, she smiled. ‘We forget our cares when we hear Beatle records.’ Four decades on, we still do.
Ed Barrett is features editor at Anorak.
Previously on spiked
Neil Davenport criticised a Cambridge don for having an anti-capitalist pop at the Beatles. Jerker Jansson hailed Bruce Springsteen for his ability to preach without religion. Nathalie Rothschild was cheered up by ‘the Godfather of Gloom’, Leonard Cohen. Emily Hill did not see anything countercultural about the Glastonbury festival. Patrick West looked at the Samsonite demise of heavy metal. And Andrew Calcutt explained why Elvis Presley was still Number One. Or read more at spiked issue Music.
(1) The habit persisted to the end, with McCartney writing hits for Cilla Black, Badfinger, Mary Hopkin and others. In 1969 the latter’s ‘Goodbye’ was kept at number two only because another McCartney composition was number one (‘Get Back’). What’s more, the year had started with the Marmalade at number one with McCartney’s ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’. When the Beatles split, they had enough leftovers by Lennon, McCartney and Harrison to release an album superior to their recent Abbey Road. Most of these would appear on subsequent solo albums.
(2) The point was made even more strikingly when the picture eventually appeared alongside the earlier shot on the 1962-1966 and 1967-1970 compilations.
(3) The Beatles had the advantage of being from the north, so the American rock’n’roll vernacular naturally suited their accent. Southern English singers had little choice but to adopt cod-American accents or look ridiculous – viz David Bowie’s humorous rhyming of ‘branch’ with ‘romaaarnce’ on his 1967 gem ‘Love You Till Tuesday’.
(4) Fan club Christmas records aside, there are only two out-and-out comedy songs in the Beatles repertoire. ‘You’ll Be Mine’ is an early love song to a girl with a National Health eyeball. ‘You Know My Name (Look Up The Number)’ is a skit on northern nightclubs recorded with Brian Jones shortly after Sgt Pepper was finished. (Fans of The Fast Show will notice that the incoherent ramblings around the 3.40 mark bear an uncanny resemblance to Rowley ‘I was ve’y ve’y drunk’ Birkin QC.)
(5) The professional critics might have been oblivious to the changing times, but the fans certainly weren’t. Rumblings of discontent among ‘Beatle People’ in 1967 prompted The Beatles Monthly Book to pose the question: ‘IS SGT. PEPPER TOO ADVANCED FOR THE AVERAGE POP FAN TO APPRECIATE?’
Readers’ reactions showed that two distinct camps were beginning to emerge. ‘I disagree very strongly with a lot of the Beatles’ personal opinions’, wrote Sylvia Wilton, ‘but I respect their great talent as composers and performers. More than ever before Sgt Pepper demonstrates just how good pop music can be if a group is willing to do a bit more work and not just churn out new records that say the same old things’.
Wilton represented the majority, but a significant minority sensed that the boys were getting too big for their Beatle boots. ‘Everything is over our heads’, complained Joanne Tremlett, who pleaded with the boys to ‘stop being so clever and give us songs we can enjoy’. Ann Turnbull was angry after spending ‘£2 including the train fare’ on an album with ‘only three songs worth hearing’, while Jan Williams liked only the title track: ‘It’s the Beatles we used to know before they went stark raving mad and started to write rubbish.’
If that was bad, the following year brought the ‘White Album’ and the notorious ‘Revolution No 9’ – a bridge too far for many. By now even the pop papers realised that things had changed. ‘I am angry about this’, admitted Alan Smith of the NME, who dismissed the eight-minute experiment as a ‘pretentious piece of old codswallop’.
(6) Despite his musical decay, Lennon remained a fascinating, funny, and essentially honest character, as demonstrated by his lengthy interviews with Rolling Stone, Playboy and David Wigg. His lacerating tongue was still in working order, and he was scathing about longhaired conservatives – prefiguring the new hippy-conformists who would shape the stultifying landscape of the coming decades.
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