Friday, 4 December 2009

the beatles: a personal memoir

How you approach the Beatles depends very much on your age. If you were born after about 1965, your only knowledge of the Beatles will be of a complete body of work. Modern critics who denigrate the Beatles tend to overlook this obvious fact. However, if, like me, you were 16 years old when Love Me Do was released, you would view the band differently. I and my contempories got it all in sequence, conveniently spaced at intervals of a few months to keep us eager for more. My cousin, who was two years older, looked down her nose at us young fools and wondered what all the fuss was about. A couple of years younger and you’d have screamed your bloody head off and not even listened to the music. In fact, the Beatles gave up playing live because they couldn’t hear themselves playing. Check out The Beatles at Shea Stadium: the band is off key most of the time, and the playing is extremely ragged. As professional musicians—and by ‘professional’ I mean someone who not only earns a living from an activity but also takes a pride in doing that activity to the best of their ability—they had little alternative. And it’s nonsense to suggest that they weren’t competent musicians, as several recent critics have done. You don’t play five-hour sets at the Indra and Star clubs in Hamburg for weeks on end without either getting good or getting thrown out. These guys paid their dues.

Anyway, my father had just bought a new gramophone in October 1962, and Love Me Do was the first 45 I ever bought, complete with original red Parlophone label (Parlophone had switched to a black label by the time Please Please Me came out). It is my proud but of course unsubstantiable boast that upon hearing Please Please Me (I placed an advance order based on the impression that Love Me Do made on me) for the first time I predicted to my friends that the Beatles were going to be big time; and my friends continued to remind me of this for several years thereafter. I had a little status at that time, because I’d been entrusted with the task of selecting records for the jukebox in my local coffee bar, the Dunrobin. Its proprietor actually owned this jukebox, which meant that he had to buy his own records. Service companies put records on their jukeboxes only when they were already climbing the charts, but I can say that we had most of the big hits on our jukebox at least a week before they hit the charts, and I didn’t pick too many lemons. However, although I was quite good at picking the hits, I did (ab)use my position to further my own musical agenda, so we had Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and other R&B heroes. And Tamla Motown at a time when Motown’s output was still being released on Oriole American, an extremely minor label, in the UK. Unbelievably, one of the most popular records with the coffee bar’s regulars was Just Like I Treat You by Howlin’ Wolf! And all this in a small market town in the north of England. That jukebox must have been one of the most eclectic to be found anywhere. But I digress.

To assess the impact that the Beatles undoubtedly had, you need to see the context. Pre-Beatles 1960s pop music was unrelentingly dire, with just a few notable exceptions—Shakin’ All Over by Johnny Kidd and the Pirates springs immediately to mind. And then there was the serendipitous coincidence of a number of factors, the first of which was that they were turned down by Decca. Just imagine it: if Decca had signed the band, they would probably have been produced by Joe Meek. If you don’t think that would have been a problem, check out Meek’s production on John Leyton’s Johnny Remember Me or the Tornadoes' Telstar. Ugh! Second, the Beatles signed for EMI, where they had the great good fortune to be assigned to George Martin, who was sympathetic to what the band was trying to achieve, unlike Phil Spector, who imposed his own style because he thought himself the star of the show. His work on Let It Be makes this point with devastating clarity. It is nothing short of execrable. Third, they dumped Pete Best and replaced him with probably the most underrated drummer of the 1960s, Ringo Starr. Ringo is underrated precisely because he’s not flashy. Contrast him with Keith Moon of the Who or Mitch Mitchell of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, both brilliant drummers but with flamboyant playing styles, so people notice them. Mind you, Ringo would have been the wrong man to accompany Hendrix, but it takes another drummer to appreciate the metronomic precision of Ringo’s drumming and the hundreds of hours of practice that are required to reach that level of accuracy. Finally, however, the really crucial coincidence—it had never happened before and is very unlikely to happen again—is that of finding two geniuses in the same band. And contrasting styles too. McCartney had the better ear for a tune and wrote simple songs with a wide appeal—note how often his songs are covered by other artists. In contrast, Lennon’s songs are more introspective and personal, and they attract fewer cover versions. And the definitive version is invariably Lennon’s. The contrast is best exemplified by the 1967 double A-side Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever.

That said, I entirely agree with modern criticism of the hype and media-induced frenzy surrounding the early Beatles. However, the stupid haircuts and collarless Italian suits were the work of their manager, Brian Epstein. The boys didn’t like them. And Epstein was a brake on their creativity too. He actually wanted the band to record How Do You Do It? (later covered by Gerry and the Pacemakers), written by a jobbing Tin Pan Alley songwriter, as a follow-up to Please Please Me!

There is an interesting but also saddening downside to all the media adulation that the band attracted: the tendency to build something up while waiting for a chance to put the boot in. The British media are experts at the technique. The Beatles could do no wrong for five years, but you could just hear the knives being sharpened. The chance came at Christmas, 1967, when the BBC screened the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour. It was largely unintelligible or just downright silly, but it was the Beatles after all, and it was torn to shreds by the TV critics the following day. Nobody appeared to notice that it contained some of the Beatles’ best songs: Fool on the Hill, I Am the Walrus (which together make for another interesting comparison of the contrasting styles of McCartney and Lennon). As to influence, it’s hard to say. There was a deluge of competent but hardly exciting bands, first from Liverpool and then from other population centres, in the wake of the Beatles, but by the time this dust had settled, a clutch of very talented bands had emerged: the Rolling Stones, the Hollies, the Animals, the Kinks, Manfred Mann, the Who, etc. We waited eagerly for each new release.

Something not appreciated by those who are only familiar with the contemporary music scene is the nature of these releases. Today, chart singles are merely lifted from the artist’s current album and are really just a cheap marketing ploy. In the 1960s, singles were produced specifically aimed at the charts without appearing on any album until much later, so there was genuine excitement whenever a new release was imminent. And I shouldn’t leave out the influence of the pirate radio stations. Before Radio Caroline came and anchored in the Irish Sea, I had three options if I wanted to listen to any music: (1) buy the record (very limited); (2) the jukebox; (3) Radio Luxembourg. This latter was a commercial station in a particularly grim way: it’s entire output (save for the religious fundies on early in the evening) was advertising. Each program was sponsored by one of the major record companies, and in a thirty-minute slot you were likely to get twenty songs, or more precisely the first minute or so of each song. Radio Caroline gave me the opportunity to hear the whole song, and in a playlist where record label was not a factor in choosing what to play. In an age of CDs, MP3 players, online downloads and the opportunity to listen to music almost wherever you are, it may be difficult to imagine what that meant in 1963–64.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Bob Dylan heard the Animals’ version of House of the Rising Sun and decided to go electric. One of my favourite chuckle memories of the period is of all the folkies walking out of concerts shouting “Judas” when Dylan walked onstage in front of an electric band. They probably deserved what was coming: spending the rest of the decade with their heads up their backsides listening to Joan Baez. It doesn't get any grimmer. Anyway, the Beatles heard the new electric Dylan, and that is what made them realize the old moon/June paradigm of lyric writing was strictly one-dimensional, leading to a much more mature approach to their songwriting (cf. Rubber Soul and Revolver, and single releases of this period). And so it went on. Everybody was influencing everybody else, leading to an explosion in creativity and a great time to be young. At the time, I was devastated when the Beatles broke up, especially as the Spector-produced Let It Be turned out to be a cheapskate epitaph for such a great band, but in retrospect I came to realize that they had burned themselves out as a creative force, and, after all, good things never last for ever.

7 comments:

  1. This is a really interesting post. It really got me thinking. I'm definietly going to make a point of following your blog :]

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  2. Yeah, I agree with L'Girl. Interesting post. Yoko Ono is often blamed for the breakup of the Beatles and I often wonder if the accusation is a fair one.

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  3. The 60s is a fun era to be in. I like Sgt. Pepper and Abbey Road. They had so many great songs. I like Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever also.

    I was mostly in the 80s music growing up. Endless love songs and a lot of one hit wonder songs. I like all eras of music though.

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  4. I bought "Something New" without a cover, at a yard sale circa 1966, for $0.35 when I was 7, and listened to it daily for over a year. You discount the early Beatles too quickly, I think. I still listen to the tunes from it on a regular basis. They have an unmatched visceral vitality that I find timeless.
    I'm going to have to agree with John Lennon, and say that I love most of Phil Spector's work on "Let It Be". Especially on "Across The Universe". I think the appropriate guitar solo for the song "Let It Be" was selected and is extant on the initial American release of the album "Let It Be". At the time I didn't like "The Long and Winding Road" or the orchestration on it, but I can enjoy it now. (I do own a copy of "Let It Be (Naked)". Also, Joe Meek had his moments.
    The Beatles are the blueprint that Rock and/or Rock and Roll may never escape. Yoko's done some startling and great performance art. Spend some time reading about her. She's not responsible for the Beatles outgrowing their own self-imposed limitations.

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  5. The Beatles brief performance on the rooftop of Apple was a spectacularly beautiful thing, I think.

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  6. my late father played guitar and sang me beatle's songs and famous song in his time, that is your time too.I grew up listening to Beatle's my whole life. it is a very good remembrance about the my favorite band of all time you are posting

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  7. Great post. The Beatles are a band that mean a lot to me, too. I personally like the music (and image) of the early Beatles and recognize that they made some mistakes throughout their career. As for Let it Be, I have been listening to it lately and think it has some good songs. Thank you for sharing your memories about the Beatles.

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