24 December 2015

A young person’s guide to the Beatles


When a Beatles obsessive ‎hears that the band is to allow its music to be streamed by the digital music services on which the youth of today listen to music there are several possible reactions. If you own everything they ever released – as I do, like many other fans – you might feel a little jaded. What’s the point? There’s nothing new left to hear. There is nothing – other than a few scraps that might be of interest to us sad types – left to release. Sure, if you want the aborted second take of Twist and Shout (the version on their first album is a one take masterpiece recorded at the end of the 13 hour recording session) then I’m sure it’s there somewhere in the archives but we’re into life is too short territory.

Then you watch the BBC News this week and they had the clever idea of asking young passers by if they have heard songs such as Yesterday. It seems impossible, yet they hadn’t.‎ (Note, I am not saying that nobody under twenty has heard their songs, just that the gormless types the Beeb rounded up hadn’t.)

Immediately, after seeing that clip I felt a melancholy twinge of recognition. The smart alec observation I’ve been making for 20 years, that in culture and art there is an inevitable falling away, until from any important era or century only a handful of figures remain well known, is even impacting on a band as big as the Beatles. Even stellar performers who once dominated the media, and stirred passions, within a few decades eventually exist only in the imagination of nostalgic types and dedicated fans. Charlie Chaplin is a good example, and Sinatra’s 100th birthday recently served as a reminder of how quickly he has gone from being the boss to a fascinating historical curio. Elvis, long dead then revived commercially by a clever record company and estate, is fading fast. Chuck Berry, in my view the most important and best of the artists of the 1950s because of his lyrics which were savvy when Bob Dylan was still at school, is shuffling off the stage. Rock’n’roll itself is starting to look about as distant as Vera Lynn or Bob Hope.

I’m happy to say that these thoughts of regret, rage and resentment in connection with the young not all having heard the work of the Beatles passed quite quickly, to be replaced with joy. Isn’t it wonderful that a new generation that tends not to buy music, or certainly not old music, is now going to be exposed for the first time to albums such as Revolver or Abbey Road via digital streaming services? What a great time they will have discovering the hidden gems and embracing the hits, which are generally of the highest quality. What a treat awaits. Everyone these days in reality music TV says they are on a “journey” (“Is been an amazin’ journey, Simon”) but what better musical journey is there than the journey of discovery that is involved in getting into the Beatles? Very little compares, certainly in the field of popular music.

In my boyhood the Beatles were omnipresent, as though they were the chirpy musical equivalent of the Queen (not Queen the band, which is not my thing at all). The Beatles were the best of British. They were the biggest, even though they hadn’t made a record for a decade. And then Lennon was shot when I was nine. News didn’t transmit in quite the way it does now, there being no social media. So my mother – who had seen them in concert a couple of times – only heard on her return from work when I told her. I can still recall the sense of shock and inter-generational trauma. The rest of the evening I remember as a blur of Beatles films on TV (or is that the memory playing tricks?) and repeated playings of the “red” greatest hits double album covering their work up to 1966.

Many of us fans had similar experiences at an early age, which meant that when the teenage years came the Beatles were a natural source of experimentation and enjoyment, especially if you sensed that music was going to be very important to you in life. It marked you out, you kidded yourself, if you could see beyond the mop-top image to the artistic core. Once you began to listen properly, it was immediately apparent that there was so much by the Beatles that was outstandingly good that it was at times bewildering. As a result, the Beatles seemed magical, and still do, when they were really an accident of circumstance and the result of tremendous hard work and ambition. Thank goodness Lennon and McCartney found each other. Thank goodness that the young George was there as the perfect foil at the right moment. Thank you Ringo, for being the loveable puppy of the litter who made it all seem somehow normal and attainable.

Derek Taylor, their lovely press officer, now gone, described their story as the greatest romance of the 20th century, which it is.‎ So I offer the following not in the spirit of a smug oldster trying to patronise younger readers, but simply as ten pointers or shortcuts that might speed new fans on their way to the best stuff.

1) As a unit the Beatles had terrifically good taste which only very rarely failed them. First, there were their personalities and their curiosity, which blended classless irreverence with a speedy recognition of quality. It applied when it came to the use of strings, new sounds, artwork and clothes. They were also extremely lucky to meet their manager Brian Epstein and then their EMI producer George Martin. A spiv pop manager or a stupid producer could have ruined them by the end of 1963, whereas this pair knew they had something special. It was their job to nurture, encourage, guide and let the band find its path. They did an exemplary job. Epstein also naively concluded some poor deals on their behalf, although it was all worth it in the end because of what he brought to the party, which was poise and a theatrical sensibility a million miles from the worst huckstersim of the record industry.

2) The albums are not all perfect. The band worked at an extraordinary pace, especially until they stopped touring in 1966. The pressure from the record company and media was huge, meaning there are dud tracks because they rushed to satisfy demand. Even Rubber Soul, sometimes said to be free of blemishes, contains the bitter Lennon stinker Run For Your Life, a piece of sexist garbage. Another problem is that although Harrison grew into a formidable ‎lead guitarist (eventually), and his supporting parts on the key songs early in their recording career are astonishingly inventive, give him a straight twelve bar solo between 1962 and 1965 and he was all fingers and thumbs. In contrast the Stones had Keith Richards, whose early solos flowed and swung beautifully. There’s an exception in the case of early Harrison, see the perfectly executed solo on I Saw Her Standing There.

3) Harmonies, harmonies, harmonies. It is taken for granted now ‎that they excelled at harmonies, but the blend in numerous combinations – Harrison and Macca, Macca and Lennon, or all three together – is one of the wonders of 20th century music, from the “whoa yeah” of Please, Please Me to the medley that closes Abbey Road. The Everly Brothers, an early influence, deserve some credit.

4) Buy Ian Macdonald’s Revolution in the Head, a song by song guide to their work bookended by an essay that places them in historical context and nails the social and musical revolution of the 1960s. Read anything by Mark Lewisohn, the best Beatles historian by far, who is working on the second volume of his definitive work.‎ His guide to their studio work is outstanding.

5) Don’t be sniffy about the early recordings of the Beatles. It is easy to think they were only truly interesting from the moment they became “serious,” smoked dope and discovered Dylan (Bob, not Thomas). That would be a mistake. Not only are many of the early singles stunning, the early albums are full of surprises too. Try If I Fell from A Hard Day’s Night. They also packed such a punch in that period, having worked so hard in Hamburg and in Liverpool clubs and dance halls. I Want to Hold Your Hand is not much of a song (it sounds awful played on a guitar alone), and they knew it which is why it didn’t survive in their repertoire for too long. Instead, it is a great sounding record, blending Motown energy levels and English sensibility, that was capable of resonating with an American audience when the Beatles needed a breakthrough hit.

6) Lennon should not be considered a saint or a political hero. He was seriously under-educated on politics, books and art, leaving him prey to hangers-on telling him that if John said it then it must be important. Eventually, his mind addled after a narrow escape from acid, and under the influence of the conceptual artist Yoko Ono, his replacement Mother, he flipped. The creative sceptic became a credulous clown. Imagine – his biggest post-Beatles number ‎- is the summit of this preposterous phase. A rich man in a massive English house set in enormous grounds sings about having no possessions. “It crystallised John’s dream,” said Yoko after his death. Yeah, right. The proceeds crystallised in the Lennon-Ono bank account.

7) Ringo was a good drummer. Really, I mean it. Listen to the drum fills on a Day in the Life, or to Taxman, or to Come Together. When Lennon was reputed to have said later that Ringo wasn’t even the best drummer in the Beatles, Lennon was being a pillock and he was probably drunk. It was hurtful to his friend and downright wrong. (*)

8) The Beatles is every bit as much Macca as it is Lennon. Although McCartney’s solo material poses particular problems (see point 10)‎ it should not cloud the judgment about what went before. The martyrdom of Lennon means that McCartney has had to take second place when his track record, album for album throughout the Beatles winning streak, is every bit as good as that of Lennon.

9) The albums Revolver and Sgt Pepper really are as stunning as is claimed. Ignore the man at the drinks party trying to be controversial/interesting by saying that he prefers the White Album or even that he hates the Beatles. The White Album is, as Ian Macdonald put it, a triumph of clever sequencing that papers over cracks that were obvious even then. That is not to suggest it is a failure. The White album contains many successful songs and is highly evocative of their post-India comedown, but it does not cohere in the way that Revolver does. Imagine the acetate of Pepper being played out across the London rooftops at dawn from the open windows of (I think) Ringo’s flat the morning the album was completed in 1967. What optimism. Such bliss.

10) Don’t get your hopes up about the solo work. My son got into the Beatles a few years ago and I can still remember his wondrous expression: “You mean there is years more of this they made afterwards on their own?” Not quite, I had to explain gently. While there are gems (such as Harrison’s All Things Must Pass and Macca’s Ram) there is a lot of dross, some of it unintentionally quite amusing, but that’s another story.

There you go. My guide to the Beatles. I hope it helps. Every time you delve in to any album you will, if you listen carefully, hear something new, whether it is a guitar line just audible in the mix or something in the timbre of Lennon’s gloriously powerful voice. Alternatively just soak up the sensation and sing the choruses. There was so much wrong with the hippy-dippy love is all you need cod philosophising of the Beatles in their pomp. No, love is not all you need. Money and security helps too. But ultimately, their music is pure pleasure. Dive in.

(*) I’m grateful to readers who point out that Lennon didn’t say Ringo was not even the best drummer in the Beatles. It seems to be an urban myth originating in a joke made in several early 1980s comedy shows. Mark Lewisohn was puzzled by it, knowing how much Lennon liked Ringo, and could find no record of Lennon ever saying it.

Iain Martin is Editor of CapX