Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Beatles



The first I knew about The Beatles was that their music had been banned from broadcasting on the South African airwaves, at least through the SABC, because their music was blasphemous, or perhaps because they were blasphemers for claiming that The Beatles were bigger than God, arising from a comment made by John Lennon that also got the band into trouble in the US Bible belt.

Many years later, when I was in the middle of my high school career the Rector gave a two part sermon on the evils of pop culture and used a couple of Beatles songs as examples of how subversive popular music could be and how the tunes contained all kinds of disguised drug, satanistic and generally anti-authoritarian references calculated to undermine the moral fibre of the youth. By that time I had heard a number of Beatles songs, owned a greatest hits album of theirs and was not prepared to accept this bullshit for anything but bullshit from an out of touch, conservative Afrikaner teacher. Maybe the songs contained drug references, but who cared? Those subtle or not so subtle references were what made us like the songs in the first place and I could honestly say that no Beatles lyric, or any song lyric for that matter, ever influenced me to renounce Calvinism or made me take up drugs or become a homicidal loner who hated society and everyone in it. I rejected my parents' religion because I did not believe in it, I took up drug long after I left school because I was curious and interested and they were available, and I was a loner through inclination and choice but never became an addict or mass murderer because of my alienation and eventually snapped out of it when I finally grew up, quite late in life.

The point is: no Beatles song ever influenced my thoughts or actions in any way whatsoever. I saw them as a perfectly nice pop group with some terrific tunes, realised their iconic status put them in a different league to everyone else, and left it at that. The Beatles was just one more band I liked.

The first time I really took note of their music was when Oh Darling off Abbey Road got quite a bit of airplay in South Africa, presumably after the band had officially broken up, as understood the reason why the Beatles was suddenly allowed back on the SABC channels had something to do with that technicality, i.e. they no longer existed and the radio ban could only apply to a working, functioning entity. At least that is what I heard; it may have been completely untrue, but in the context of the times and the sometimes stupid rules and regulation we lived under, and the many loopholes that existed, or were created, to allow one to escape from the full force of the repression, this explanation for the Beatles being in favour again, did not seem especially outrageous.

Most of the Beatles hits, apart from parodies of their tunes by the likes of Peter Sellers and the Carry On film series, were beyond my ken until I had the opportunity to listen to the two greatest hits sets, 1962 – 1966 "red" album and 1966 – 1970 "blue" album at the house of a school mate whose older brother owned the albums. I immediately liked most of the early hits, and found Hey Jude almost unbearably exciting with its (to me) inscrutable lyrics and huge sing-a-long coda. The Beatles seemed to be the kind of band one could enjoy on many levels though at the time I was only into the visceral attractions of music. If it had a good beat and you could dance to it, I was into it.

I've owned vinyl copies of the 1962 - 1966 "red" hits album, The Rock'n Roll double album, and had the benefit of listening to Municipal library copies of Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Magical Mystery Tour and Let It Be. Latterly I've bought the double CD sets Anthology 1 and Anthology 3 , and With The Beatles and Rubber Soul, to date hereof my most recent purchase.

I own Phillip Norman's biography of the band and Ian McDonald and Tim Riley's two separate song by song commentaries on the music, the infamous Albert Goldman biography of John Lennon, a slim picture volume called The Beatles In Their Own Words, a day to day activities diary, and some other written odds and ends. The Beatles story is pretty well documented in my rock library.

Does this make me a Beatle expert? I suppose not, given the vast mass of material out there, not to mention the latest Phillip Norman biography of Lennon, and the many authors who have had something publicly and in print to say about the group. Having said that, I do have an opinion about the band and its place in pop cultural history, and the relative merits of the various members' contributions to the music and the myth.

Simply put, I believe that George Harrison was the least talented songwriter in the group, that Lennon's supposed genius is vastly overrated and inflated by his so-called premature death -- he had been artistically dead for some time before he was shot -- and that even McCartney, who is most probably one of the most talented songwriter ever, pissed away his talent with inconsequential pop after he left the Beatles. Maybe all of them needed the others (and George Martin) to make something better than the sum of the parts and try as they might none of them ever really improved on their Sixties, youthful creativity.

Double Fantasy was crap when I first heard it, and Lennon's death made no impact on my assessment. I would think it would not have sole as many copies as it did if Lennon had remained alive to promote it. Although forty is by no means old he sounded like an old fogey making old fogey music in a cocoon of wealth and privilege but with no link to reality, either to what was happening musically or socially.

Somewhere in the late sixties John Lennon realised that his wealth and prestige gave him enormous cachet and leeway to do almost anything he wanted. He probably learnt from Yoko Ono that just about any activity could be labelled art and if you were John Lennon your farts could be made into art happenings if you declared them such. Hence sitting in a bed or in a bag for peace. The best things Lennon did after leaving the Beatles can be summed up in the Lennon/Plastic Ono Band and Imagine albums. After that he trod water and essentially became famous for being famous.

George Harrison was the "quiet one", interested in guitars and guitar solos (his greatest sphere of creativity on record until he was allowed a song of two per album) and later Indian mysticism, the sitar and a huge beard. Much later, probably when he realised that his musical career was the pits, he bankrolled some good movies, and some poor choices like Shanghai Surprise, and then joined the Travelling Willburys where he could slot into his standard Beatles role and be a great supporting instrumentalist. But really, apart from All Things Must Pass, and some nice early Seventies singles, Harrison could never surpass Taxman, Something or even While My Guitar Gently Weeps and even the latter track became something special mostly because of Eric Clapton's solo. George Harrison was capable of writing a good song every now and then but he was not consistent and that is why he is secondary to both Lennon and McCartney who almost always delivered the good. Even a mediocre Lennon / McCartney tune can be interesting; a mediocre Harrison song is just dull.

I can think of a few prominent McCartney songs from his post Beatles career, such as Band on the Run, Live and let Die, Silly Love Songs, Ebony & Ivory, The Girl is Mine (both collaborations with Black artists that seem to be little better than frivolous novelties), Tug of War and Mull of Kintyre, and these are all from radio play. Apart from the Band on the Run album I have not listened to any Wings or solo McCartney album, and have no desire to. Of all these songs, only Mull of Kintyre is a true classic, a standard, the kind of song that can really bring a lump to the throat under the right circumstances. Lennon's song Imagine comes closest to a standard, but I cannot think of anything Harrison wrote or released after the Beatles break up that would ever be a standard of such proportions. Say what you will about McCartney, he can sure write them if he puts his mind to it.

John Lennon may have been the genius and may have been the true iconoclast in the Beatles, but he is the kind of artist who creates best on impulse and not all impulses are good. McCartney probably has impulse and dedication to craft, and can work a song into something splendid even if the effect is wholly calculated. This makes him the real genius and one of the giants of popular music. Sadly it seems to me that most of his output over the last 20 years or more has relied more on craft and polish than on creative spark.

I used to own a vinyl copy of the late Seventies John Lennon album Rock & Roll, bought as a budget re-release in the Eighties, because I recalled the hit from it, Stand By Me, as a particular favourite of mine back in the day and it seemed to me that the menu of rock and roll covers could not be a bad thing, and I must confess that I did enjoy the album and played it often when I still played records. I would not mind owning it on CD. The only other solo Lennon album I would want to own, is John Lennon / Plastic Ono Band, though I would not mind listening to Imagine again, and maybe Mind Games and Some Time In New York City. On the whole, though, a greatest hits collection is about the best way to experience John Lennon.

As for Paul McCartney, I once had a taped copy of Band on the Run and listened to Back to the Egg, (which was terrible)
but I cannot really think of any one Wings or solo McCartney album I would want to pay money for or necessarily would want to listen to either, though I guess I would then be guilty of dismissing a whole body of work because of some individual examples I did not like. The thing is, whereas Paul at least had the gumption to start up a whole new band and drive it to success, he went into a musical direction that was the antithesis of what I was listening to or deeply interested in when I was a teenager, and the adult in me has not reconciled with the AOR rock of Wings. The post-Wings pop has left me totally cold.

As for George Harrison, about the only thing associated with him that I am interested in, is the DVD of the Concert for Bangla Desh movie, which may well have been his shining hour. Maybe All Things Must Pass as well, but in his case I do not think that even a greatest hits package would find favour with me.

As for Ringo Starr, the singing drummer, I must confess that his early Seventies hits such as Back Off Boogaloo and She's Sixteen were firm favourites of mine and they are still fun. He had no pretentions to art or artifice and made records because he was allowed to and fortuitously had some hits along the way. The movie career did not quite take off, perhaps because of bad choices, and nowadays he is on the road again, with a new band and new releases, and I guess he can make a living retreading some nostalgia and offering more modern sounds that will never trouble the charts or find favour with a general rock audience again. Perhaps Ringo is one of the lucky ones, who managed to hitch on to a speeding train to stardom without needing to be the talent or the ambition, and he became as famous as the rest, as lovable, and can now boast of being one of only two surviving Beatles. He is a living legend of sorts and maybe dozens of biographies will flood the booksellers after he dies, but I do not think anyone will ever write a revisionist tome in which he is found to be the most underappreciated genius of the century. About the best one could say about him in the context of the Beatles, it seems, is that he was a very capable drummer who did make a very useful contribution to their sound.

The genesis of this piece is my purchase of Rubber Soul a couple of weeks ago, from a CD seller on Greenmarket Square, along with Anthology 3, which covers the "White Album", Abbey Road and Let It Be final years. The anthology contains mostly demos and it is interesting to hear the naked, unadorned versions of songs better known in full arranged and orchestrated fury, such as Helter Skelter or Hey Jude, and even While My Guitar Gently Weeps and Something, but one allows for the fact that these tracks are demos and if they sound a bit cheesy or flat, the reason is that they have been fully worked out and need polishing. However, it was Rubber Soul that was the revelation, in a manner of speaking, of disappointment.

If one is used to greatest hits compilations of pop groups, listening to albums can be less than satisfactory when not every song is a killer. This is what Rubber Soul is like. As I understand the conventional wisdom of how Beatles albums and the body of work are categorised, Rubber Soul is where they start maturing into the era of the peak that is Revolver, and perhaps Sgt Pepper, before dipping into the trough that is Magical Mystery Tour and the rocky period of the "White" album and the Let It Be sessions, before peaking again with Abbey Road. Before Rubber Soul, the Beatles were quite good, but still somehow a bit twee and hidebound and too much of the family entertainers. From here on in they take LSD and expand their personal and musical consciences and truly become avant garde.

I approached Rubber Soul with much anticipation. The cover is great, my favourite Beatles album cover, and it has a number of songs I knew and loved, close to half of the album's songs can be found on the 1962 - 1966 greatest hits set. As it turned out, the well known tunes are also by far the best of the bunch and the other tunes seem mostly like filler to me. The two Harrison songs are dire, and Lennon's Run For Your Life, that seems like a left over from the debut album or maybe With The Beatles, is just terribly naff. Where was the quality control? These kind of songs counter the argument that the Beatles were simply the greatest pop group ever. Okay, maybe Rubber Soul is just a flawed album by a great band, but it seems to me that just about all their albums are similarly flawed, as most of Harrison's songs up to maybe the "white" album were at best mediocre, Ringo just had his single goof per record, and the quality of Lennon's output fluctuated wildly -- for every Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds there is a Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite.

Apparently a New York rock critic Richard Goldstein was just about the only rock writer who did not think much of Sgt Pepper at the time it was released and found himself lonely and castigated out on a limb of his own making. Perhaps he was more correct in his opinion of the album than everybody who did and still reckon it to be one of the best albums ever made, if not the best. It seems to me that the event of Sgt Pepper has overtaken the reality of the music, which is not that bad and not in total all that wonderful either if you get right down to it. Like most Beatles albums it is a mixture of wonderful and mediocre lent more weight because it is a Beatles product.

If one wants the best of all possible Beatles worlds, buy the "red" and "blue" greatest hits sets, or the later Beatles 1 album, and you will have all the good stuff. The rest, barring an exception here or there, is disposable. The best one can say for the Beatles, to paraphrase John Lennon, is that they became very popular and are now, even more than ever, cultural icons of a magnitude that it would be hard to diminish and, as is the case with Elvis Presley, the music becomes of secondary importance, just background to the big show. The hits will always be with us, the mop top images will always survive on posters and other merchandise, John Lennon will most likely always be thought of as the genius more than Paul McCartney, and the Beatles industry will thrive for as long as pop culture exists.

Despite my high school principal's dire warnings and greatest fears, my only Beatles connected drug experience occurred when I was already close to my mid-forties. It was a night I spent with fortysomething friends when we were all high on some herbal substance (not the obvious one) they smoked and I consumed as a kind of infusion, and the guy played the Beatles 1 album. Somehow he became fixated on and obsessed with Eleanor Rigby. It is probably not the first track on the CD, so we must have listened to the preceding tracks in the ordinary course but for some reason the guy got stuck on this piece of McCartney schmaltz with its deeply meaningful lyrics about alienation, set to a great pop tune. My host identified with the deep meaning he perceived in the rather mundane lyrics. The pause and return and play buttons of the remote control to the CD Player worked overtime. We'd listen to half the song and then he'd pause, share his stoned insights, then return to the start of the track and let it play for a few seconds before pausing again, and sharing more insights, or maybe even the same insight, put slightly differently, before starting the track from the beginning again.

This process lasted a couple of hours, or so it seemed, and we never got through the whole of the song. Obviously the guy and his partner, who had theories of her own, were heavily into their explication of the lyrics and intent behind them and so forth, and may well have had true insight in their attempts to relate a pop song to the greater human tragedy around us, but it got a tad trying after a while, especially as I was not nearly as stoned as they were and rapidly became bored and irritated with having to listen to the same bits of the song over and over. I went to bed and they carried on and for all I know, never did get to the end of Eleanor Rigby.

This experience should probably be a convincing reason why one should not take drugs.

Perhaps it was totally coincidental that the Beatles drove my friends to this kind of excess and maybe it would have happened with any other album they'd chosen to play, but I almost think not. Whatever it was that John, Paul, George and Ringo had, it was something that still has some of us caught up in imagination and awe.





Anonymous said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


Jamie Olney said...

Nice article. Refreshing.