ESSAY: As the Beatles' back catalogue is reissued, Ed Barrett salutes
the world's most brilliant, inventive and humorous pop group.
20 November 2009
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
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.)
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.)
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.)
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
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.
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
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 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. http://www.anorak.co.uk/