December 2009 - January 2010


From mop tops to moustaches

By Robert Forster
From mop tops to moustaches

The Beatles celebrate the completion of their album, Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band at Brian Epstein's house in London, 1967. © John Pratt/Getty Images.

The Beatles remastered

It’s a cheeky thing to say, but maybe the best thing The Beatles ever did was ‘I Saw Her Standing There’; track one, side one, off their first album Please Please Me. It’s all there on this song: the fiery syncopated rock beat – tougher and more strident than other pop bands of the time; Lennon and McCartney are singing together, they are writing together – McCartney’s original first line “Well, she was just seventeen / Never been a beauty queen” changed to the more knowing and lascivious “Well, she was just seventeen / You know what I mean” by Lennon; there are telltale signs of sophistication in the songwriting – the minor chord in the chorus, the pushed extra notes out of the middle eight; and there’s the other two: George Harrison sparking on rhythm and lead guitar, Ringo driving the band with subtle and intricate drum patterns. The great arc that the and will travel over the next seven years, from Beat group to Mod, from Psychedelia to the madness of The White Album, will eventually bring them back to ‘Get Back’, another rocking three-chord song, and on their last album, Let It Be, they will attack ‘One After 909’, originally written by Lennon in 1957. So the circle is complete but you have to wonder, in the light of the sheer joy and beauty of ‘I Saw Her Standing There’, how much better did they ever get than this?

The Beatles were formed in 1957 when John Lennon invited Paul McCartney to join The Quarrymen. Soon after, McCartney got his mate George Harrison into the band too. It’s important to remember, and Lennon never let the others forget, that he asked Paul and the others to join his group. Lennon is thus the ur-Beatle, the starting point, and this fact will play out all the way through the band’s career. Lennon will bring in his non-musical friend Stuart Sutcliffe in 1960 to play bass against the others’ objections, he’ll charm the band’s manager Brian Epstein and still teasingly call him a ‘rich fag Jew’, he’ll claim The Beatles are bigger than Jesus and create the band’s biggest controversy, and he’ll bring Yoko Ono into the group without any consultation – where she will sharpen his artistic instincts while playing a part in the band’s break-up. But at the start, in the checked shirt, with the guitar cocked over his shoulder, on the makeshift stage at the St Peter’s Church fete in Woolton on 6 July 1957 singing ‘Be-Bop-A-Lula’, he will instantly win over a smitten Paul McCartney. The Beatles will not be founded on McCartney’s commonsense or Harrison’s calm enlightenment: it’s the reckless, destructive, beguiling genius of John Lennon that is at the band’s core.

The first big thing to grasp about The Beatles is that they had a five-year apprenticeship. The London groups such as The Who, The Kinks and The Rolling Stones had one or two years at the most and then were up and running; The Beatles had five and it shows in everything they did.  When they first met and sat around in front rooms and halls playing guitars together and scraping the odd gig, Lennon was 16 going on 17, McCartney was 15, and Harrison 14. They were in Liverpool, and the narrative of any Beatles biography has the three heroes being able to bunk off school and write songs while enjoying a newly installed postwar education system that frees them from the dead-end jobs of their fathers and uncles. It’s a particular moment between the grim 1930s and the shiny ’60s that enables these three boys time to float and graft their way around a port city stoked with music and energy. And even at these tender ages, with members drifting in and out of the band, they must have known or sensed that there was something magical in the way they played and sang.

Their repertoire was wide and a lot of ground gets covered in these first five years. Besides Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Little Richard and Elvis, they also did rockabilly, doo-wop and, most surprisingly, a broad selection of non-rock material: weird shit like ‘Besame Mucho’ or ‘The Sheik of Araby’  or Peggy Lee’s hit ‘Till There Was You’ that McCartney would mostly sing to show off the crooning side to his voice. It’s a big jumble, with the main strain being 12-bar pop/rock, but continually sliced by Broadway tunes, comedy numbers and 1920s popular songs (‘Ain’t She Sweet’). The opportunity to play all of this comes in six-hour shifts in Hamburg nightclubs, where the owners are wont to demand additional rumba or cha-cha numbers for the dancing customers. The Beatles will do this, steadily accruing musical knowledge and the ability to think on their feet. The band plays fast and hard and litters the songs with screams and harmony vocal crescendos to keep rowdy and sometime violent audience members in Hamburg and rough-edged Northern England towns, such as Liverpool, from attacking the band. When they arrive in London in June 1962 to audition for George Martin, this is the musical education they carry with them. They also have their fresh, bantering Liverpudlian humour and a couple of songs they’ve written.

Considering the stature of the Lennon and McCartney songwriting partnership, and given the number of books and amount of research that covers each inch of Beatles minutiae, it is surprising that the early songs and songwriting don’t get more attention. Instead, biographies will casually mention big songs being written years before they are recorded, without exploring the circumstances of, or reasons for, their composition. How did Paul McCartney write most of ‘Michelle’ in 1959, or the bones of ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’ in 1957, or be busking ‘I’ll Follow the Sun’ between sets on piano in 1960? None of these songs will be on the band’s early LPs (‘When I’m Sixty-Four’ will have to wait for Sgt Pepper in ’67), nor were they featured in the band’s live program at the time. When the band does get a chance to record their own material at the Decca Records audition of early ’62, they will do only three originals, all written in 1957 (‘Hello Little Girl’, ‘Like Dreamers Do’ and ‘Love Of The Loved’), none of which will they record again. It’s puzzling that at vital make-or-break moments in their early career, older songs such as ‘Love Me Do’ from 1958 will be presented while seemingly more melodic and recently written material is withheld. Eventually, a seismic shift occurs in the middle of 1962, when George Martin, convinced of the band’s talent as musicians and songwriters, signs them to Parlophone Records and a ground zero moment is reached. Through the gaining of a record deal and Martin’s ear, the levers of the pop business and the pop charts are suddenly available to The Beatles and, with the prize in view, Lennon and McCartney really get cracking.

The band will make 12 albums. The remastered versions bring the count to 14, with the addition of Magical Mystery Tour, which originally came out as a double EP, and the two-disc Past Masters, which collects the band’s A and B sides and stray EP tracks. There was a much-derided release of the catalogue on CD back in 1987, and the current versions, benefiting from whatever upgrades have occurred in technology and sound design, are out to rectify the weedy and thin tones of the initial release. Four years have been spent on the remastering, and given that an album usually takes a day to master, much work has been done, or else the engineers have enjoyed a long holiday. But ‘four years’ has the Beatles’ ring to it. These albums are the rock equivalent of the ancient papyrus manuscripts or Shakespeare’s First Folio; treated carefully and never lent out for such frivolities as ’60s greatest hits compilations or movie-soundtrack fodder, their re-appearance and re-enhancement in the digital world comes with some fanfare. And you’d have to say they sound great. The early albums have punch and clarity, enabling close-up enjoyment of all aspects of the group, especially the Lennon and McCartney vocal work, which is astounding. And the trickery and hard-worked-for sounds of the band’s later work benefit from the polish – those guitars are harsh and the drums really do have boom and depth.

It is easy to forget that The Beatles were for some time after their break-up uncool; that there was a time when musicians and the pop scene in general were happy to be out of their shadow. This period started in the mid ’70s and ran to the early ’90s. There was Beatles fatigue, understandable after ten years of their omnipotence, and a generation of bands and songwriters arose wanting to move on and work with influences that bypassed the work of the Fab Four. The declining quality of Beatle solo albums helped with this process, Lennon being so burnt out as to leave the mid-’70s recording scene and go into self-imposed exile. Musical movements that followed owed little to them, and bands that did bear similarities to The Beatles, such as XTC or 10CC, got a hard time of it, being accused of being too muso-ish and self-indulgently clever. Lennon’s death in 1980 and the mainstream success of slick solo stars such as Madonna and Michael Jackson further dampened the chances of a Beatles resurgence. The early ’90s were the turn-around, brought on not least by the three surviving Beatles’ work on the Anthology documentary and albums. And a crop of bands arrived, born outside the initial blast zone of the ’60s, that was besotted with the decade and up for a revisionist assessment that placed The Beatles back at the top. Cue Oasis. But there was more: the baby boomers were ready for a rekindling of their love affair, and the adult monthly rock magazines out of England started with their lists of the 100 best Beatles’ songs, or the 100 worst Beatles’ songs, or the 50 best Beatles’ singles, and McCartney in all his crinkle-eyed humility grinned in interviews “We weren’t a bad little band, you know” – and the world loved him. The remasters stamp the legend. The Beatles are back, never, you would imagine, to go away again.

After ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ comes ‘Misery’, another great early Lennon/McCartney song and Beatles’ performance, and it begins a pattern on their albums of a brisk lead-off track being answered by a rhythmic ballad: ‘Eleanor Rigby’ after ‘Taxman’ on Revolver; ‘Something’ after ‘Come Together’ on Abbey Road. Three cover versions follow ‘Misery’ and, with the exception of A Hard Day’s Night, the first five Beatles’ albums will have varying amounts of other songwriters’ material on them, primarily sourced from the band’s club days. The Beatles are masters of these songs and punch them out with real swagger. There’s love in the playing and the songs leave a clear trail of influence. But the main game is the explosion of songwriting that takes place around the release of the band’s first single, ‘Love Me Do’, in late ’62. It starts when Lennon brings ‘Please Please Me’ along to a session and George Martin crucially suggests speeding it up. This will be their first number-one record, and a series of driving, relentless pop songs will follow, running right up to ‘Ticket to Ride’, where the pace will slacken but not the song quality.

‘From Me To You’, ‘She Loves You’, ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’, ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’ is a dizzy list; and all released in a year. Listening to them now, individually or all together, still induces a sense of vertigo. These remarkable   songs are crafted from two seemingly opposite song styles: the speed is rock’n’roll, but the chord changes and melody lines lean to the slower, more sophisticated world of Broadway or Tin Pan Alley. There are seeds to this fusion in pop – Everly Brothers records like ‘Cathy’s Clown’ or the early ’60s work of Roy Orbison – but The Beatles smash through with their tempos and fire and absolute hairpin turns of melody. These are the songs that made Beatlemania, and the mass teenage-girl hysteria in light of the push and motion of these records seems an entirely understandable response; even if you don’t cry and wail to them, they do something similar to your heart and mind. Magic songs that crashed through the last line of resistance, which was the USA, stunning the musical world there and lighting the way for all pop and rock music in the ’60s.

To listen to the albums chronologically is to pick up the quick improvements in songwriting and performance and the changing studio expertise at Abbey Road. Key moments stick out. ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ feels like the first ‘modern’ Beatles’ track; Lennon’s voice sits further back with the band and there’s fewer of the jolting changes of the previous singles. Harrison plays his first great solo here, and there is the highly influential, jangling 12-string guitar in the fade. A Hard Day’s Night, their third album, is one of their very best, and the only one to be composed entirely of Lennon/McCartney songs, of which the lion’s share go to Lennon – and this is in-your-face Lennon: bluesy, super-melodic pop with the rasping voice. ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ is a great single, album and film. The next LP, Beatles For Sale, has a fine, unusually downbeat three-song start – ‘No Reply’ ‘I’m A Loser’ and ‘Baby’s in Black’ – but then trails off. Help! is stronger, with ‘Yesterday’, ‘Help!’ and ‘Ticket To Ride’ as singles, and McCartney contributing the gorgeous ‘I’ve Just Seen A Face’, and B-side ‘I’m Down’ in one session. But there’s a gathering tension in these albums, too. Brilliant though individual songs are – and there are times when a good sequence of self-written songs runs together – the records lack mood and consistency. A break from touring was required; time to write after years of popstar stress, time to process Dylan, drugs, swinging London, underground London and the new groups at their heels. The Beatles were about to make their best records – and there are only two.

The band’s career can be sliced up in a number of ways, with a natural fall occurring in late ’66. On the cover of Rubber Soul, the band are still recognisably mop tops, out-grown hair covering rounder, fuller faces, the camera looking up as it did on their debut album Please Please Me. Revolver is a fine ink-and-photo montage of their whole career. Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is the break; The Beatles in saturated lysergic colour, freshly minted for their second incarnation. All the members suddenly looked more set and older, but the shock was Lennon, who had lost weight, acquired the round ‘granny’ glasses and had shorter, centre-parted hair. Rock stars didn’t do that from album to album. This was a man who had written ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ on tape loops at home and come into the studio asking to sound like the Dalai Lama. He’d written ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and seen it matched with McCartney’s ‘Penny Lane’ as a double A-sided single, and he’d written Pepper’s crowning masterpiece ‘A Day In The Life’ – no wonder there is a knowing twinkle in the eye as he stares out from the inside jacket photo. But the better work had been done in the year before. Between October ’65 and September ’66, the band recorded 32 original songs and there is not a dud among them. There are the 28 numbers evenly split over Rubber Soul and Revolver, and two non-album singles, ‘Day Tripper’ / ‘We Can Work It Out’ and ‘Paperback Writer’ / ‘Rain’. This is consistency; and an abundance of grade-A material that reduced musicians of the time, and time since, to awe.

Rubber Soul and Revolver have the luck of history; they are built on the precision of early Beatles’ pop, but with a knowing sense of growth and ambition. They are definitely mid-’60s records – tight and concise, Modish and adventurous. Rubber Soul may pip Revolver for songs, and Revolver may pip Rubber Soul for sound. To hear them today is to be knocked out by song after song – the quality never slackens, and the group never sounds tired or jaded; nor is their work as yet beholden to sound effects and orchestras and funny voices. The material is suddenly stronger and more varied, and the band are really trying and getting massive kicks out of how good they are sounding in the studio. Highlights? ‘Eleanor Rigby’ is outrageously good. A musical movement comes out of this song, though none of the string-laden sad pop that will creep into the hit parade over the next three years will match it. Violins were made for McCartney’s voice, and they saw surprisingly hard against the vocal. ‘Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)’ is beautiful Ikea-style folk. ‘The Word’ is funky and jammy, Harrison has ‘Taxman’ and ‘If I Needed Someone’, there’s ‘Yellow Submarine’ too, ‘Girl’ and ‘In My Life’ from Lennon, and McCartney, who is making a lot of the running on these two albums, has, among many strong songs, ‘Good Day Sunshine’, ‘For No One’ and ‘Drive My Car’. Rubber Soul and Revolver are very fine eclectic folk-rock, catching The Beatles at a point where melody and restrictive song lengths and a meshed group dynamic help bring the band to a peak.

Producer George Martin’s biggest regret with The Beatles was that he bowed to record-company pressure and allowed the first two recorded songs of the Sgt Pepper sessions to be siphoned off and used as stand-alone singles. So ‘Penny Lane’ and ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ were gone, and with them much of an embryonic ‘return to Liverpool childhood’ theme for the album. Even more damaging was the loss of two very strong numbers, because without them Sgt Pepper, while big on sounds and odd instrumentation, lacks good songs. There are five brilliant ones – the album’s title track, ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’, ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’, ‘She’s Leaving Home’ and ‘A Day In The Life’ – with a sizeable gap separating them from the rest, of which McCartney’s ‘Getting Better’, ‘Fixing a Hole’ and ‘Lovely Rita’ are overproduced and over-sweet. It is the Beatles’ album that is most dependent on the force of the times, and it must have sounded spectacular and important on release; some pot, candles, a room full of friends and the fantastic events of the day would have helped with its appreciation. From any other vantage point, the record’s tone is heavy and tense – this is an acid album, after all, lots of minds are melting and so is the judgement on the songwriting.

Just four days after its completion, inexplicably the band returns under McCartney’s cheer-leadership to begin work on the Magical Mystery Tour EPs: that done, and a trip to India, and with the death of their manager, Brian Epstein, recently behind them and Yoko Ono’s arrival into the heart of the group before them, the band return to the four white walls of the only studio and producer they have known for six years. Boredom and claustrophobia can’t be used as excuses for a substandard album, but they didn’t make things any better as The Beatles careered back into Abbey Road to make the follow up to Sgt Pepper.

The White Album is a mess. Even so, its reputation has grown as that of Sgt Pepper has fallen, and it is easy to see why. No band over the last 30 years enjoying anything like the popularity of The Beatles has released a record as chaotic, weird and bad as this; for more recent listeners and musicians especially, the sprawling, widely uneven splash of material over four sides sounds like a band bravely pushing the very limits of what an album can be. The group was fractured when the recording was being done; band vibes were so bad that Ringo walked out and most tracks were recorded by Beatles working alone. Lennon and Harrison, who were chafing the hardest against the group and its myth, enjoyed this freedom, but, with the exception of ‘Revolution 1’, ‘Julia’ and ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, little of what they do matches the impact of their first great solo records. As always, Lennon and McCartney are ‘talking’ to each other through song, and where before a spirit of competition and mutual discovery produced strong material, on The White Album the exchange between the principal songwriters over the record’s 30 songs is nasty and vindictive and to the album’s detriment. Both of them, in fact, seem to be outdoing each other over who can stomp on the Beatles’ legacy the hardest. McCartney proffers ‘Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?’, a repetitive blues that must have taken all of ten minutes to write, Lennon comes back with the dogged ‘Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey’. McCartney throws in a thin Dylan pastiche (normally Lennon’s territory) ‘Rocky Raccoon’, and Lennon counters with ‘Revolution 9’ – eight minutes of sound collage which effectively terminates the dialogue the band has had with its fans since ‘Love Me Do’.

Admittedly 1968 was a tough year, with very little serene and beautiful art about, and The Beatles as always have a finger on the zeitgeist – but it is a failed record. George Martin, who does tend to lean to the more conservative side when it comes to judging the band, thought The White Album would have made a good single LP, and he’s right. For those who like their Beatles mixed and erratic – try Let It Be.

But it all could have been so different. What is amazing, when looking at the second half of the Beatles’ recording career from early ’67 to its conclusion in August ’69, is how a band with so many great songs – and Harrison was starting to write very well – failed to convert them into a series of thrilling albums. There is the potential for a run of records as satisfying and deep as the period from Help! to Revolver, yet The Beatles fail to make them. What got lost was the sense of cohesion and mission that led to the regular and thoughtful documentation of their early work. The band either became too ambitious – the Magical Mystery Tour and its disappointing television show – or made wrong decisions – The White Album as a double LP, the botched Get Back album sessions that became Let It Be. Without touring and without a manager, the band becomes a bickering studio group, unable to agree on or find a cohesive plan of releasing their material. Only at the end, with all squabbles set aside, do they go back to making an album “like we used to”, with George Martin at the helm demanding unity and discipline – the result is Abbey Road. At a glance, the Beatles’ recording career is a tight and neat run of material up to and including Revolver, and a second half of stormy albums and magnificent non-album singles (‘Hey Jude’, ‘Hello, Goodbye’, ‘Lady Madonna’ and ‘The Ballad of John and Yoko’). Lay the second half of the ’60s beside the first half, though, and nothing in it is neat and tight.

They had 12 years, five of them in relative obscurity and the other seven in the blinding light. The fact that all their music was recorded in the one decade gives their work a fantastic sense of completeness that no other artist or band from that era has. The Beatles are under glass, pristine and enclosed, with no ragged reunion tours or slack albums in later years to besmirch their name. At a distance the band looks like a wonderland, and surprisingly, the trippy, coloured world of their acid years works as a metaphor for the state of lost bliss the band still evokes. There is a sense of perfection to their music and it is always sweet, even when they are trying to be loud and rowdy; every note is right and every harmony correct and double-tracked. Two groups of two men serve the band on either side of the central songwriters: George Martin and Brian Epstein, and George and Ringo. At the heart of the group is the one-off meeting of the century, Lennon and McCartney, so unalike and so alike, each a leader and a champion, able to work together, and the rest is fireworks. Geoff Emerick, the engineer on many of their best recordings, relates in his band biography, Here There and Everywhere, the terms of their relationship. Lennon was the only person who could say “That song is shit” to McCartney and he’d take it. McCartney was the only person who could say to Lennon “You’ve gone too far” and he’d take it. This conversation only ever takes place within The Beatles. No one later told John Lennon he’d gone too far, and no one else has ever told Paul McCartney, “That song is shit.” The legacy of this exchange is the music of The Beatles.

Robert Forster

Robert Forster is a singer-songwriter and co-founder of The Go-Betweens. His collection of music criticism, The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll, was published in 2009.

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