Saturday, 19 July 2014

With the Beatles

Writing about Hard Day's Night got me thinking about the Beatles.  Or rather, got me thinking about the Beatles' music as actually experienced in my own life, rather than as seen from some artificial, all-seeing critical perch.  A book like Ian MacDonald's celebrated tome Revolution in the Head, that exhaustive account of every Beatles track from every angle, does nothing for me; in fact, a feeling of despair overwhelms me any time I open its covers.  I really don't need to know any of that stuff, and prefer my music unmurdered for dissection.*

Born in 1954, I think I'm probably too young to be a Beatles fan.  My sister, born in 1946 and thus a proper Boomer, was just the right age to catch the early, upbeat Beatles in her dancing years, but lost interest in following them through their later, more interesting phases.  People grew up fast in those days, and psychedelia and cynicism about the ways of the world held little or no attraction for young parents with a mortgage and small children.  I, on the other hand, lived with the Beatles as background music from the age of nine, found them briefly interesting around 1968, but lost interest as soon as "real" rock in its many guises swaggered onto the stage.  My guess is that most die-hard Beatles fans will have been born in or around 1950.

So "my" Beatles story is neither a fan's hagiography nor an exercise in musicology, but a series of glimpses of a life with musical accompaniment, and probably about as interesting as listening to someone else's dreams, or seeing their holiday snaps.  Well, hey, the movement you need is on your shoulder.

Track 1:
My most vivid memory of the early hits is evoked whenever I hear "She Loves You".  Oddly, I am instantly transported to an enclosed concrete and brick passageway running between our house and the next one in the terrace on a blazing hot summer's day. Perhaps one or other back door is open, in the heat, and a radio is on, perhaps a little louder than necessary.  We had recently moved away from the neighbourhood where my primary school was situated to a newly-built estate on the far edge of town, still under construction, which -- in those pre-internet, pre-mobile phone days -- meant expulsion from my previous Edenic life.  Our cat simply ran away, rather than move into this unlovely, half-finished place.  With no friends living nearby, my sister away at college, and both parents at work, those were hot, lonely summers, 1964 to 1966.  A delicious sense of inner sadness entered my life, back then, which has never entirely gone away, and those astringent, plangent harmonies, first heard in the previous year -- our last summer in paradise -- gave it a shape.  Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeaah.

Track 2:
Liverpool came into my life in a big way in the form of my sister's future husband, whom she had met at teacher's training college. Les was everything a ten-year-old could wish for in an older brother.  He was tall, good-looking, knew jiu-jitsu, enjoyed fishing, rolled his own cigarettes, and had actually been to the Cavern to see the Beatles in their earliest days.  Above all, he noticed me. The youngest of a Liverpool Catholic family of ten -- his oldest brother was the same age as my father -- he brought a Lennon-esque Liverpudlian teasing and banter to bear on my lonely self-obsession.  I suspect he was the only one to notice that I was in danger of becoming more than a little odd.

When they married soon after, my only regret was that I couldn't leave, too.  Instead, I would spend the occasional weekend with them, as they followed a succession of teaching jobs and raised their children, helping to decorate a new flat or clear the overgrown garden of their first house.  On one of the last times I went to stay, they gave me their hardly-played copy of Revolver to take home, which I loved but was never really their cup of tea.

I still think Revolver is the only entirely successful Beatles LP (even "Yellow Submarine" is almost tolerable), and is probably the peak of their achievement.  It's the point where the song-writing, the studio production, the ambition and the musicianship are all in perfect balance. Though to fully appreciate this you have to have put the stylus of a mono Dansette record-player carefully down onto a spinning black vinyl LP, sitting in the middle of the floor of a darkening back room, with nappies and clothes hanging everywhere to dry.  She said, I know what it is to be sad...

Track 3:
Somewhere around 1968, I started spending pocket-money on records, and began to construct an identity around music.  We couldn't have known it at the time, but as mid-teens schoolkids we were part of a world-changing revolution, that was inverting and shaking up the values and snobberies that still separated high from low culture.  We were also consumers-in-training, of course, and the two things are not unconnected.

Being an instinctive antiquarian, I found myself haunting the stall at our Saturday open-air market that sold second-hand singles.  After school, too, having flipped through the LP racks at the back of W.H. Smith, we might also check out the Co-op, where ex-jukebox singles were racked in a carousel display, in blank sleeves and with the punched out centres replaced by a plastic insert. You could buy anything "old" -- reckoned as more than two or three years -- for pence, and assemble a set of vintage Beatles, Rolling Stones, Who, and Kinks singles that was an education in itself.

The first and last Beatles single I ever bought new was "Hey Jude", with its pioneering pictorial label -- the A side a whole apple, the B side a cut apple -- and I played it constantly.  I think I felt about it then as some might feel about the Beethoven late quartets: it seemed both the summation of a career and of a moment.  By then, we had moved into a fourth-floor flat in a council block of such bomb-proof solidity that you could play music as loud as you liked without troubling neighbours in any of four directions.  I would gaze out across the town centre to the motorway, with "Hey Jude" pounding out behind me. 1968 was my biggest Beatles year, and naturally the White Album was top of my Christmas list.

What a massive disappointment that album was.  With the possible exception of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps", there is not a single track on any of its four overblown, incoherent sides that meets the gold standard of Revolver, or matches the excitement of the sudden mass emergence of new blues- and folk-based sounds from acts like Cream, Jimi Hendrix, or the Incredible String Band.  And with Beggars Banquet, the Rolling Stones were finally pulling ahead, laying the foundations for Let It Bleed and Sticky Fingers, surely the two most sophisticated albums of that era, and still among my favourites (Lord, if only the Stones had broken up, like the Beatles, after the mish-mash of Exile on Main St. ...).  I gave away my copy of the White Album some time in the 1970s.

Track 4:
Still, at their peak, the Beatles explored certain areas and breathed the air of some rarefied heights that few have visited since. There is such a thing as "Beatles country", and other musicians tread there at their own risk. If I had to pick a single item (and, frankly, I could live without any Beatles at all on my desert island) it would be the double A-side release of "Penny Lane" and "Strawberry Fields Forever".  It is simply perfect.

Why?  Because that double sound -- one side sharp and clear as a piccolo trumpet solo, the other slurred and wistful as a stoner's daydream -- defines an eternal moment of pure provincial Englishness, the long summer picnic of post-imperial decline.  It is psychedelia used to a purpose:  the perception-in-confusion surrealism of the lyrics is not meaningless, or chest-beating (compared to, say, "Purple Haze") or twee (compared to, say, "Hole in My Shoe" or even "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds"), and the underlying musical arrangements of both tracks are simply incredible in their bold originality.  This release did not so much reflect the times as remake them in its own image.  As I say, perfect.
No one I think is in my tree
I mean it must be high or low
That is you can't, you know, tune in
But it's all right
That is I think it's not too bad...
Exactly, John, exactly.

* Wordsworth:"We murder to dissect" ("The Tables Turned")


Martyn Cornell said...

My brother, born 1956, is a huge Beatles fan, but I suspect he's an exception. I was always more of a Stones man, though you're right, Exile on Main Street is rubbish - don't know how it gets on all those 'Best Ever Album' lists. You're also correct, of course, that Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields is pure genius - what a pity they were left off the Sgt Pepper's album (Record company policy, apparently - singles couldn't appear on LPs released th same year - or so Ian MacDonald says!) because that would have been unsurpassable wit hose two tracks as well. My personal favourite Beatles song is Paperback Writer - written by McCartney, just to prove he could do heavy rockers. But the question I find impossible to answer is how well the Beatles will age: will our great-grandchildren enjoy them?

Mike C. said...

"Exile" is a puzzle -- like you, I cannot fathom why it is so highly rated, even though I'm a massive fan of "golden era" Stones. They weren't even in the same room most of the time...

Mind you, I don't rate Sgt.Pepper that highly any more -- it really hasn't aged well. I also think the Beatles never threw off that "Mum's favourite" image (never a problem for Mick's crew...) -- even off their faces on acid they're determined to be cute.

I love the guitar riffs, drums and general rhythmic attack on "Paperback Writer", but the lyrics are in severe need of sub-editing -- why a paperback writer? "Red Top Writer" might be more like it...


Dave Leeke said...

I was never a huge Beatles fan - or Stones particularly. I guess I considered them the music of my sister's peers. However, I have grown to enjoy them both over the year. I'm not a fan of much of the early Beatles but a book like MacDonald's helps you find out things never noticed before. For instance, I hadn't realised that John and George are singing "Frere Jacques" in the background on "Paperback Writer".

But, to the point you make about the lyrics to that one, I think that they really didn't care too much about their lyrics. It seems to me that they were enjoying playing in the studios and creating sounds - the song lyrics themselves were about as important or non-sensical as "Awopbopaloobopalopbamboom" (now there's a great book about early pop by Nick Cohn). But also I suppose the rise of paperbacks - especially Penguin in the 60s - at that time made them an "appropriate" lyrical signifier.

Mike C. said...


I expect you're right, but I still find it hard to think of wanting to become a paperback writer as deserving of the same riff-tastic satirical treatment as "Tax Man"...