From Mojo magazine, November 1995
All Together Now
There are bad times ahead for Beatles unbelievers. Out soon is a new single of sorts, put together by Paul, George and Ringo and using an old tape of John. There will be new CDs of unreleased material. An archive of film footage is being assembled for TV and video. Once again, as in the good old days, Apple’s London office is busy with preparations. We enter a season of celebrations for the pop group who changed everything.
But are The Beatles worth it? Many will be asking this between now and Christmas. And the answer is: yes, The Beatles are worth it. Once upon a time they guaranteed a splendid time for all. Not for the few, but for all. That is what they promised on the sleeve of Sgt. Pepper and they very nearly did it. Who else in history has ever come closer?
Even now The Beatles remain the Pole Star of popular music – a fixed, brilliant point of light. All the constellations of pop stardom are charted around them. To The Beatles’ own generation they mean everything the word nostalgia was invented for. And yet, because their music also endures, endearing itself afresh to new generations, the group’s appeal seems perpetually self-replenishing. Therefore they belong to the ages, not to the aged.
The simplest sign of The Beatles’ talent would be a list of their song titles. It would go on unfolding in a litany of delight – a list that’s more or less familiar but also, in its range and extent, unstoppably surprising. Whenever you think you’ve got their measure, some half-forgotten masterpiece presents itself. Their poorest efforts exceed most people’s peak achievements. There is a splendid time in there and listening pleasure in super-abundance.
How many songs in all? Around 200. Here are 10 at random… Across The Universe, You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away, Here Comes The Sun, All My Loving, She Said She Said, Norwegian Wood, I Saw Her Standing There, With A Little Help From My Friends, Drive My Car, Eight Days A Week. Actually they’re not picked quite at random. They have in common that none was ever released as a UK single or even as a B-side. There always seemed to be something stronger lying around. Something a bit more popular…
They made their records over not much more than seven years. Such prolific creativity has never been equalled in pop. What’s so dazzling about their catalogue is that practically all of it is good. The quality is so thorough-going, and so nearly consistent, that there really isn’t a core repertoire. You could of course compile their singles, all of which were hits, but in artistic terms there can never be a meaningful “Best Of The Beatles”.
The only selection it’s feasible to make is a personal “Worst Of”… Mr Moonlight, perhaps? Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey? Maxwell’s Silver Hammer is pretty annoying. It would be pleasant if their Yellow Submarine could never resurface. If it sank fast enough it would flatten that Octopus’s Garden. Beyond that it becomes a struggle to think of candidates. There is a major rubbish shortage.
Admittedly it’s tempting, when you play the White Album, to skip across Revolution 9. And yet there is something brave and great about it being there at all. Does the repetitive ending of I Want You (She’s So Heavy) labour its point? Possibly. Or maybe not. And that’s the lot. Scatter your brickbats any further afield and the indignation swells in a loyalist’s heart. We all love Ian MacDonald’s tremendous book of song-by-song analysis, Revolution In The Head. But if he ever comes round here with any of that “Across The Universe is crap” crap, he’ll be duffed up.
Nor should amateur Beatle-bashers feel on safe ground with You Know My Name (Look Up The Number). This particular B-side is certainly stoned nonsense, but even here we find expertise and charm. To hear it (“Good evening and welcome to Slaggers!”) is to feel no pain whatsoever.
In this embarrassment of riches one’s own favourites keep on changing. Different works swim in and out of focus. From Me To You or I Am The Walrus? Things We Said Today or Tomorrow Never Knows? Perhaps you grow bored by beards and sitars, but invigorated and refreshed by the splashy brightness of early Moptop. Or else the cute suits and boots don’t do it any more – you drift to the mystic and the multi-layered… Rubber Soul or Abbey Road? Over time they seem to revolve and jostle at the front rank of your attentions. This year that, and that year this. I Want To Hold Your Hand or Hey Jude? Few decisions in life are as hard to make. Few decisions are as pleasant, either.
Thinking of The Beatles’ albums, the wonderful thing is that the hierarchy of excellence never stays fixed. It’s not the same with Dylan or the Stones, if only because they went on to make so many more records. To most minds, Exile On Main Street will always be better than Goat’s Head Soup. There is not much of a contest between Highway 61 Revisited and Down In The Groove. There is more respect for Fat Elvis than there used to be, but in a musical head-to-head it will invariably be Thin Elvis who wins. It’s a different matter with The Beatles. Their sound changed more dramatically than anyone’s has ever done, but their early spontaneity is equal in merit to their late sophistication.
It is unbelievable how quickly those changes took place. Whether in their lyrics and studio technique, or just in their haircuts and clothes, you find the difference between 1963 and 1966 is phenomenal. Or between 1965 and 1968. It’s no wonder they encouraged a belief that rock music was hurtling with irreversible momentum into some astounding and unimaginable future.
It wasn’t, although there has been plenty of fine music made since. Things slowed down after The Beatles, but nothing stopped altogether. It’s just that The Beatles played out pop’s whole cycle within their own lifespan. They began in youthful vigour and simplicity, through to cleverness and perfection, on to maturity, fatigue and decadence. By the end there was disintegration. All that was left was a call for renewal – Get Back – by a return to the old rock’n’roll certainties. Unfortunately the cycle would not turn a second time. Once lost, The Beatles' innocence could not be restored, as the Let It Be film demonstrates.
While it lasted, everything they did astonished. Long hair! Talking funny! Cheeky to the Queen! Going to America! Moustaches! Indian music! No more concerts! Taking ages to make a record! Going weird. Being scruffy. Not smiling any more. Not existing any more… They were rarely the absolute first to do anything, except in the studio, where they and George Martin were persistent innovators. But if they borrowed some inspiration, be it from Tamla Motown, Carl Perkins or Jimi Hendrix, they repaid with interest by energetically spreading the word. Their ideas in fashion and philosophy were sometimes drawn from the underground – once adopted by The Beatles, an avant garde concept would rocket to the mainstream.
There was a constant wonderment around The Beatles that is now dulled by familiarity, but almost all they did had never been seen before by most of their audience. Their funny little Beatle haircuts were, in 1963, a genuinely strange sight, more shocking to see than even hippy weirdness was a few years later. They were a new type of boy and loved by every girl in the world. But of course boys loved them too. They were not posh, they were provincial, but they represented a huge surge of optimism on the part of the common people. The only elitist thing about them was their talent, but even that was made for sharing. The only market they knew how to target was everyone.
If you tried to imagine the world as it would be if The Beatles had not existed, you wouldn’t know where to start. Nothing about our daily lives would be the same. Modern culture would be unrecognisably different. It was their success that brought about a real British pop industry and this alone would render them significant. Without them The Rolling Stones would not have written songs, and probably never have left the beatnik blues clubs of the Home Counties. Without The Beatles’ inspiration, tens of thousands of groups would not have been formed, nor would there be record companies to sign them.
In the USA the Beatle effect was just as incalculable. The Beach Boys might never have moved beyond surf-happy re-writes of Chuck Berry. The whole of popular music as we presently know it is inconceivable without them. Perhaps something would have happened, given the pressure of youthful numbers and energy and spending power. But we cannot know what.
There is in any case a core of improbability to the Beatles event. The central mystery, or miracle, was that John Lennon should meet Paul McCartney. Everything The Beatles achieved arose from the alchemy of that partnership and hence from the random circumstance of their encounter at a Liverpool church fete in 1957. You just can’t say that something like it was bound to happen sooner or later.
Paul and John had innate gifts for musical composition that were transformed into something magical by their influence on one another. Though different in their abilities – Lennon was the better lyricist and McCartney more inventive in melody – they were precise equals in creative force. The balance of their genius was so exact that each half could lean against the other. Often they helped by suppressing each other’s mistakes, and both men missed that afterwards. Would Paul have got past John with Bip Bop or Bike Like An Icon? Conversely, would he have given John’s Meat City the thumbs aloft?
All the same, McCartney has traditionally been undervalued by critics. Partly this reflects a weakness among hip writers for striking tough poses, leading them to favour hard man Lennon over gentle tunesmith Paul, or maybe The Rolling Stones over The Beatles. Partly it’s ignorance about how much McCartney did for John’s songs – Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds is lyrically fabulous, but try hearing John’s one-note verse-melody without the benefit of Paul’s amazing bass part on the chorus.
In other ways the group’s influence was surely illusory. As The Beatles’ time recedes into history, their impact on world affairs looks much smaller than it seemed at the time. Yet the triumph of their art appears all the greater, because it has lasted so well. Nothing in pop was expected to go on giving enjoyment like this. There was a constant, hostile comparison of pop to plastic. Ironically, this was more apt than pop’s critics imagined – supposed to be disposable, it has proved itself imperishable.
A few were moved to predict as much by the beauty of Beatle music. Savour the sleevenote written by Derek Taylor for 1964’s Beatles For Sale. It includes the lines: “When, in a generation or so, a radio-active, cigar-smoking child, picnicking on Saturn, asks you what the Beatle affair was all about – ‘Did you actually KNOW them?’ – don’t try to explain about the long hair and the screams! Just play the child a few tracks from this album and he’ll probably understand what it was all about. The kids of AD 2000 will draw from the music much the same sense of well-being and warmth as we do today.”
As a political catalyst, or a social force, their importance has doubtless been overstated – by the folk who admired them, and those who thought they were agents of Satan or the Politburo. But, for an extraordinary period in the ’60s, The Beatles seemed to be causing all the changes in the world. They’ve patiently denied it ever since. But so it looked then. For the young, here was World War II in reverse. A life-defining watershed, a half-decade of chaos… arriving as long after World War II as that had arrived after World War I. (On the train in A Hard Day’s Night, an harrumphing old Blimp declares that he’d fought the war for the likes of them. And Lennon taunts: “I bet you’re sorry you won.”)
The madness of Charles Manson, which made him hear in their lyrics the clarion calls of apocalypse and murder, was really only a common feeling about The Beatles' power, heightened and twisted to a psychopathic degree.
If the world was offering them the job of gods, they declined the post. One thing that made them give up touring was their dismay at finding sick and lame people lined up in hotel corridors, waiting for The Beatles to touch them. They’d done nothing to invite such superstition. They always thought the great thing they’d brought to show business was just to be ordinary and down-to-earth. Acting naturally. Even at their most experimental and transcendental, The Beatles could not be bothered to cultivate ‘mystique’ or the air of being strange and deep.
They undercut their own solemnity at every turn. On Sgt. Pepper, the oriental meditations of Within You Without You end in canned laughter, skipping straight into When I’m Sixty-Four. George always represented himself as a seeker after truth, not a guru. From about 1969 onwards, John was the most likely to think of himself as a figurehead or leader of the masses. But it was a tendency he always fought against, as you hear in The Dream Is Over. When he returned his MBE to the Queen in protest against the war in Biafra, he had to add that he was angry his record was going down the charts.
Ringo, being always Ringo, returned from his spiritual sojourn with the Maharishi complaining that he missed baked beans. When The Beatles were gone, Ringo busied himself as most would in his position, going out to have more good times than were good for him.
McCartney most of all resists becoming a legend. He strips away charisma with premeditated care. He mentioned once that astronomers had lent The Beatles’ names to some distant stars they had discovered. He said, “Imagine if, when I was a kid in school, they’d told me there would be something up in outer space named after me. You can’t dwell on thoughts like that or you’d never do anything again.” He is proud of The Beatles, but even keener that nobody should mistake him for an immortal.
John was asked what lesson The Beatles had given the world. Tired of being begged to give The Big Answers, he said that what The Beatles had to say was: Learn to swim. You’re on your own. Work out the way and don’t expect to be told it. Lennon’s special gift was for the inspirational slogan – Give Peace A Chance, Power To The People – that uplifted people’s spirits. But he did not stop the Vietnam war, no more than Vera Lynn crushed the Nazis. He may have done more than nothing at all, and maybe it was something very precious, but there were larger forces at work.
Ironically, the biggest impact that John, The Beatles and rock’n’roll have had on the late 20th century is only now becoming clear. Their deepest influence was on the old communist countries. Almost invisibly to the West, The Beatles and pop culture were seeping eastwards and represented a dream of freedom more potent than any propagandist, left or right, could devise. There had been a time in the USA when it was common to hear The Beatles denounced as envoys of the Red Menace. Actually, they did more damage to the Red Menace than anything else.
If anyone’s got a forgivable grievance against The Beatles it’s the generations who came of age too late. The legacy feels most oppressive to people now in their thirties. They arrived just after the Baby Boomers and have suffocated ever since in the stale air of ’60s smugness. Interestingly, the musicians who are younger still – Blur, Oasis, Supergrass and so on – breathe more easily. They are much more willing to honour The Beatles than were the late ’70s/early ’80s age group who had to grow up in that massive shadow. But if it’s a problem then the remedy, or the challenge, is obvious enough – do better.
We shouldn’t think that nobody ever will. Bettering The Beatles seems at present beyond anyone’s scope. But their spirit was optimistic, and in that spirit we must allow that creativity can always find a way.
In truth, The Beatles’ worth is not a matter of nostalgia. They were the creatures of their time, the ’60s – they helped to shape that time and they were shaped by it. But to enjoy their work you don’t need fond memories of that decade. A love of Beethoven’s Fifth does not rest on pining for 1808. A reverence for Botticelli does not depend on some hankering for 15th century Florence. It’s fascinating to learn how Beatle songs are interwoven with their times. But if you like you can disconnect them from those times. The songs won’t sound any worse.
Pretending the records are ‘golden oldies’ is no use to anyone. Liberate your taste and reap the rewards. It’s not a case of what The Beatles’ music did, but of what The Beatles’ music does. Real art exists in the present tense.
There is probably nothing that so big a proportion of the human race has ever agreed upon as liking The Beatles. One day they might be forgotten, but that’s unlikely. They’re now the stuff of compact discs and videos, neither of which existed when the music was being made. Eventually The Beatles will appear on formats yet unheard of, through media yet uninvented, in districts of the universe yet unvisited, and be enjoyed by generations yet unborn. They’ll outlive you and me, that’s for sure.
How should we think of them? A touch of awe would not be inappropriate. There is no point any more in being coy about calling their music great art. And some gratitude seems reasonable – for all they did, and caused others to do. Most of all, we might think of them with affection… Affection, not reverence, is what’s invited by the democratic spirit of The Beatles. A splendid time for all. They changed everything, and showed how fine the things we make can be.