EMI re-released the Beatles catalogue in 2009 in remastered form. Did the re-masters improve the audio quality? No idea. I listened to the albums on a low-end car stereo on a four-hour daily commute from Drimnagh to Monaghan and back again. But it was an opportunity to have a bit of a ramble in State. And the manner of listening on mostly empty early morning roads was conducive to close attention. There was one morning in particular I was driving over the bridge at Slane in autumn light when I realised the utter blissful perfection of ‘When I’m 64’. I won’t hear a word against it.
Please Please Me / With the Beatles / A Hard Day’s Night / Beatles for Sale / Help! / Rubber Soul / Revolver / Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band / Yellow Submarine / The Beatles (White Album) / Abbey Road / Let It Be / Magical Mystery Tour / Past Masters (EMI)
I can guarantee you one thing, we will never agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis — Lester Bangs
Phoney Beatlemania has bitten the dust — The Clash, ‘London Calling’
Anyone who has any love for any tiny fraction of the millions of hours of pop music that has come out since 1970 has to have a tricky relationship with The Beatles. The Clash’s staggeringly incorrect assessment was an early expression of this; another was the Sex Pistols’ sacking of Glen Matlock. His offence? He was quite fond of the Fabs.
It could not have been that Joe Strummer and Johnny Rotten saw nothing at all in the Beatles. That’s really, really hard to do. Almost every violent reaction against The Beatles is a reaction to the cultural shadow they cast rather than to the music itself. It can also be a reaction to infuriating fans. In July 2009’s BBC Music magazine, an acclaimed classical pianist called Murray Perahia was asked his opinion of pop music. Perahia smirked: “The last people to do anything interesting were the Beatles”. No Bowie; no Kraftwerk; no Off the Wall; no Murmur; no nothing. No clue. Amazing.
Yes, The Beatles were a “great little band”. Half the time, they were astonishingly brilliant. Just as it’s hard to imagine how the likes of Perahia, passionately devoted to music, could so casually and incuriously dismiss forty years of abundant, febrile creativity, so it’s hard to imagine that any pop lover could actively dislike the Beatles’ songs in and of themselves. Lester Bangs’ great line was misdirected. In 2009, we agree much more readily on John, Paul, George and Ringo.
But there is nothing more tedious than continually to be told by people whose pop musical knowledge begins at Penny Lane and ends at Abbey Road that the greatest music ever made happened during a closely defined period between 1965 and 1969, and that’s all there is to it. You may debate which Beatles album is the greatest album ever made; you might throw in Pet Sounds or What’s Goin’ On as a wild card; but that’s about it. And so millions of people of my generation and the next are within their rights to reject The Beatles. Because if a culture’s high watermark happened before you were born, then you have to reject that culture, or live encased in nostalgia for a time you never knew.
Rejecting the Beatles, of course, is not easy. It’s like rejecting Santa, or God. Six-year-olds know who The Beatles are; they know even before they know that they know. My nephew Conor knows ‘Yellow Submarine’, and knows it’s by The Beatles. He taught it to his sister Emma. They sing it at school. They don’t sing ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ or ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’. The argument has been made that ‘Yellow Submarine’ is the most important Beatles song, for this reason. Generations of kids have internalised the Beatles at the same time that they learn their first language; these songs become a lingua franca of their own. They are the template, the songs by which all others are judged. Deciding not to like the Beatles after this indoctrination takes an enormous effort of will. It’s like disowning the warm glow of childhood memory..
It’s questionable, then, whether you can even judge The Beatles away from all the baggage. How much of what you feel, when you hear them, is the song? How much is the multiplicity of associations your mind makes with each one? How much is the story of the band, and our awareness, that they could not have had, of how it all worked out? How would ‘Across The Universe’ now sound (‘Nothing’s gonna change my world’) if the Dakota had not happened?
You never know. For now you can only attempt opinions.
To start with, Lennon/McCartney didn’t really begin to hit their stride until Beatles for Sale. The albums before this work, at this stage, as historical documents. They are of their time. ‘All My Loving’, ‘She Loves You’, and ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ work when you see them on the Ed Sullivan Show on Anthology or the Maysles Brothers’ documentary. These songs are perfectly structured, the model for rock’n’roll writing ever since, but there’s not that much going on underneath, and you’d want to be pretty stuck for something to do to put on With The Beatles for pleasure.
On Beatles for Sale, things moved on and Lennon moved ahead. He was learning to turn emotions other than twee optimism into number one hits, with ‘I’m A Loser’ and ‘No Reply’: “I tried to telephone / You said you were not home / That’s a lie”. Lennon held the lead through Help! and Rubber Soul. Paul’s best work on these albums was ‘I’ve Just Seen A Face’ and ‘I’m looking Through You’ – fantastic tunes, but a touch generic; John, though, hit a rich seam.
It may have been what Gift Grub’s George Martin calls the jazz cigarettes, or the confidence of emerging from Paul’s shadow, or Dylan’s influence, but his songs here – ‘Help!’, ‘In My Life’, ‘Norwegian Wood’, “Hey, You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” – are perfect, enthralling, diverse pieces of work. John was 24 when he recorded ‘In My Life’, and like Lester Bangs said of Astral Weeks, there are lifetimes there.
With Revolver, the drugs really kicked in, and perhaps not coincidentally Paul began to draw level. For the next few albums, what John got from hallucinogenics was a mixed blessing. Along with a willingness to tweak song structure that sometimes worked incredibly well (‘Strawberry Fields’, ‘A Day in the Life’), and sometimes very poorly (‘Revolution 9’) he also developed an unfortunate fondness for drug references as the point of the song (‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’) and for unapologetic doggerel. ‘I Am The Walrus’ is just not that great. John’s peak as a Beatle comes just around the first half of side two of Revolver, with ‘And Your Bird Can Sing’ and ‘She Said She Said’; and sticking the latter’s coruscating riff and first couplet (“She said I know what it’s like to be dead”) immediately after ‘Yellow Submarine’, to frighten the kiddies, was a genius move.
What Paul got in the late period that you don’t find before is empathy. Early on, he tries too hard on ‘Eleanor Rigby’. The strings are too knowingly dignified, the line ‘Wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door’ is too pleased with itself, and the chorus… well, yes, there are lonely people out there, but getting a pat on the head from Beatle Paul won’t help. By Sgt. Pepper‘s ‘When I’m 64’, his work is getting incredibly affecting, without letting on that it is. This is a love song that could only be written by a stoical northern Englishman – you won’t get melodrama – but it’s every bit the vulnerable declaration of eternal love that ‘God Only Knows’ is. “I could be handy mending a fuse…” The arrangement is pristine. ‘When I’m 64’ is unimprovable; it’s the soul of Sgt. Pepper.
The last couple of albums are the hardest to disentangle from the story of the band. Abbey Road’s ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’ isn’t just a song, it’s famously the last song they did in the studio together. Harrison’s ‘I Me Mine’, off Let It Be, is the last song recorded by any Beatle as a Beatle. (I do tend to skip over George, because of an initial aversive experience with ‘Within You Without You’, probably the most skipped over song in my record collection. ‘Here Comes the Sun’ is lovely, not that it needs me to say that, but I’ve somehow never warmed to ‘Something’.)
Let It Be is a shambles. (Let It Be… Naked isn’t included in the current set of releases.) how they ever returned to a studio after the awful muck of ‘Dig A Pony’ and ‘Maggie Mae’ is a mystery, but they did, for Abbey Road; at least, Paul did. John has essentially left. ‘Come Together’ is fine, ‘Because’ is beautiful, but his heart is in the confessional songwriting that started in Rubber Soul, passed through the White album’s ‘Julia’ and ‘Yer Blues’, and would culminate in the Plastic Ono Band’s ‘Mother’. He’s saving up his songs.
Paul, meanwhile, turned in, on Abbey Road, one of the all-time great Side Twos, to complete an album no-one should be without. The band was breaking up, and with the eyes of the world on him, and the weight of history, and fully aware of it, he put together a suite of songs that is stupendously inventive and ambitious, somehow epic and taut at the same time, and wildly moving. Not telling anyone how to feel, but if ‘Golden Slumbers’ does not cause you to wipe away a tear, you’re not paying attention.
And ‘The End’ is the end, and it’s a painful one. Paul went, within five years, from head-nodding along to ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’ to something approaching hard-earned wisdom: “And in the end / The love you take / Is equal to the love you make”.
As much as ‘Yellow Submarine’ explains why the Beatles are still so loved, so does the unironic, unafraid, emotional connection of moments like these. As the band wound down, John and George embraced Eastern mysticism more than Paul did, but Paul was just as much an advocate of the ineffable. On Abbey Road, and ‘When I’m 64’, and ‘I Will’, and ‘Blackbird’, he infused his spirituality into his songs. The Beatles had humour, and fire, and melody. When Paul got going, they had more. They had amazing grace.