The Beatles' enduring legacy
18 September 2009
Tired of ranting about the world's woes? Let's toast the most lovable
The clouds of economic gloom and political scandals developed a
silver lining last week (symbolically on 09-09-09) with the
international rerelease of The Beatles' back catalogue of studio
albums. Each jubilant work, from 1963's Please Please Me to 1970's
"canned in 1968" Let It Be, has been superbly remastered and
repackaged. The results are re-energising.
The revered Fab Four are back with a big backbeat, jiving guitars,
boogie-woogie pianos and heart-warming choruses, rocking on radio and
television. They are alive and well, digitally, again sharing their
unbridled joy and passion when the world's morose mood needs
uplifting. Music shops are radiating with colourful songs like "Lucy
in the Sky in Diamonds". Fans are again debating whether "Penny
Lane", "Strawberry Field Forever" or "A Day in the Life" is the
band's best song.
In a world of fickle and frivolous fads, the melodies of The Beatles
are timeless. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo
Starr - four working-class lads from Liverpool - shook the world in
1960s and helped to create a vibrant industry for rock music. Sir
Paul (now a sprightly 67 year old) is ample proof of the value of
making superlative music with his estimated worth of £850m.
The profound legacy and influence of The Beatles cannot be
underestimated. Between them, they not only helped to inspire and
define the Sound of the Sixties, but also redirect the structures,
tones, arrangements and topics of popular songwriting. With deft
support from their producer, George Martin, and longest-serving
engineer, Geoff Emerick, the Fab Four innovated recording techniques
and embraced both exotic and classical instruments before these were
en vogue with rock bands.
While drawing on Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and American rock 'n' roll,
a dash of 12-bar blues and hints of country 'n' western, The Beatles
retained a distinctly English sound with their love of skiffle and
older vernacular idioms such as vaudeville, music-hall and marching
band music. Not only did they influence their contemporaries like The
Beach Boys, The Byrds, The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, but also
serious jazz and classical musicians, among them the late Leonard Bernstein.
Cleverly structured masterpieces
At their zenith between 1965 and 1969, Lennon (the rebellious one
with the vision, intellect, angst and eccentricity) and McCartney
(the meticulous one with heart, versatility, deep musicality and a
love of tradition) were virtually unrivalled with their richly
melodious and cleverly structured masterpieces. Barring a few rough
diamonds from lead guitarist Harrison (the spiritual one), Lennon and
McCartney were credited jointly for writing the group's songs.
Serious fans and scholars, however, know that from around the time of
1965's watershed Rubber Soul album, most of the songs attributed to
the Lennon-McCartney partnership were written solely or predominantly
by one or the other. This is an indispensable criterion for
understanding the lustre and diversity of The Beatles' music.
Lennon, whether dejected or carefree, penned "In My Life" and "Come
Together", while McCartney wrote "Yesterday" and "Oh, Darling".
Lennon's poetic, otherworldly muse created unforgettable songs like
"Tomorrow Never Knows", "Strawberry Fields Forever", "A Day in the
Life", "Julia" and "Revolution". McCartney, on the other hand, was
moved to complement his older partner with gems like "Eleanor Rigby",
"For No One", "She's Leaving Home", "Blackbird" and "Hey Jude".
While Lennon was abstract, outspoken, cynical, wounded, lazy and
provocative, McCartney was diplomatic, romantic, enthusiastic,
diligent, accommodating and adventurous. Combined, their musical
synergy was immense.
As a collective with rock-steady drummer Starr (the funny and
endearing one), The Beatles brought their crisp Liverpudlian humour
from Merseyside to New York, Johannesburg, Sydney and the world. They
were Scouser sharp, spontaneous and sanguine. Shape-shifting at
lightning pace compared with today's tepid fashions, they evolved
from pill-popping teddy boys in black leathers thrashing out rock 'n'
roll standards in seedy, all-night Hamburg clubs in 1960-1961 to the
cute Mop Tops in austere, collarless suits of 1963-1964 crisscrossing
Britain in buses, helicopters and planes.
Then, in the counterculture parlance of the day, they "turned on" in
1965-1967, grew their hair and beards, and became more fiercely
individualistic in their world views and approaches to songwriting.
Pioneering new practices
Beyond the adulation of screaming teenagers, who inspired a Daily
Mirror reporter to coin the word "Beatlemania", and their post-1966
retirement from concerts to devote their energies to making landmark
records under the expert tutelage of George Martin, The Beatles
pioneered many other musical standards and practices we now take for
granted. Besides their feature films of A Hard Day's Night, Help! and
Magical Mystery Tour, they led the way with an animated film, Yellow Submarine.
Collaborating with the British Broadcasting Corporation and
independent television (TV) stations, they co-produced scores of
dedicated Beatles shows. With their euphoric Summer of Love anthem,
"All You Need Is Love", they were the subject of the first
international TV broadcast by satellite. Lennon published two amusing
books and exhibited satirical drawings. McCartney wrote songs and
produced recording sessions for other musicians, while helping to
elevate the finer art of the album cover.
Harrison studied meditation, yogic philosophy, the sitar and other
Indian instruments, and helped to change the tonality and structures
of rock music. In the late '60s, they commissioned Hunter Davies to
write their authorised biography, The Beatles. Then, in their final
bid for complete artistic freedom and commercial fabdom, they created
their mad, counterculture, egalitarian enterprise, Apple.
It is amazing to realise that The Beatles' magnificent swansong album
(the last one to be recorded), Abbey Road, was released 40 years ago
(September 26 1969). Listening to this adventurous album today, it
still sounds so fresh and young, as if the Fab Four were destined for
rock 'n' roll immortality.
The Beatles contributed so much to so many people's lives. To the
amusement of the American counterculture leaders, including Beat poet
Allen Ginsberg, 1967's Sgt Pepper unwittingly bridged the generation
gap at the height of the psychedelic movement by wowing
counterculturists and touching the hearts of the Establishment.
Their lyrics engaged the Left and the Right. Kindergarten kids loved
to sing "Yellow Submarine", while grannies tapped their toes and
hummed along to the retro-styled "When I'm Sixty-Four". Even today,
The Beatles are spanning generations and appealing to kids and
Since the 1980s, music enthusiasts have bemoaned the lacklustre look
and sound of The Beatles' albums in compact-disc (CD) format. Besides
the cover art looking jaded and the booklet printing cheap, the music
was begging for the sparkle and nuances of the original analogue
recordings. For years, fans have been insisting that the works of The
Beatles (as with the Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix and
Led Zeppelin masterpieces) be remastered and repackaged.
Holistic, multidimensional sound
Now, The Beatles are Fab again, with their classic albums sounding
sprightly and emancipated. The wide and radical remastering approach,
executed in London's famed Abbey Road Studios, has created a warmer,
clearer and more holistic, multidimensional sound. The vocals are
more engaging, the guitars keener and the cymbals sexier, while
McCartney's melodic bass is raunchier.
The evocative strings (as on "Eleanor Rigby") and horns (as on "A Day
in the Life") are more expressive and liberated. One cannot
appreciate the full intricacy of Ringo Starr's imaginative drumming
until one hears the new mixes of "Tomorrow Never Knows" and
"Strawberry Fields Forever".
The same meticulous attention to detail extends to the redesigned and
formatted sleeves, now without cheap 'n' nasty plastic jewel cases.
The booklets, all finely printed and featuring retouched photographic
images with captions, include fascinating historical notes and
insightful recording notes. As a bonus, the initial limited-edition
CDs each host a mini-documentary on the relevant album.
Two limited-edition box sets are available for the connoisseur. The
stereo one features all 13 studio albums (from Please Please Me to
Let It Be) and the two-disc, 33-song Past Masters compilation. The
mono set features the first 11 albums (without Yellow Submarine,
Abbey Road and Let It Be) and Past Masters.
Forty years after the saddening implosion of the Fab Four, should we
get so excited about all the hype surrounding The Beatles '09
repackaged and remastered albums? The answer is a resounding "yeah,
yeah, yeah". In what has been a long and winding road from Liverpool
to London and beyond, The Beatles again "are guaranteed to raise a smile".
Note: John Lennon's Liverpudlian high-school band, The Quarry Men
(aka Johnny and the Moondogs), was renamed The Silver Beetles in May
1960 and then The Beetles (first spelt with two Es) in September
1960, hence the liberal reference in the headline to "50 years".
*Freelance writer and music critic Michael Waddacor is an avid
Beatles collector and commentator.