My Life With The Beatles

MY LIFE WITH THE BEATLES (Taken from ‘Some Of My Best Friends Are Goths- 30 Essays in 30 Days’)
Fri 13 Oct 2006

You may have noticed I mention The Beatles quite a lot. If you didn’t get it, the title of the other day’s essay on Holmewood (‘The Teachers Who Taught Me Weren’t Cool’) was a line from ‘Getting Better.’ It was actually Holmewood where I discovered them. I was passing the assembly hall one lunchbreak with a friend called Goddard (“God” as we called him) when we saw they were rehearsing some end-of-year review show and decided to check it out.
The final “sketch” had the parents of two kids telling them they were going away for the weekend and to be sure to behave themselves while they were gone. As soon as they walked off, the kids put The Beatles’ version of ‘Bad Boy’ on the stereo and the rest of the cast came back on for a big party/dance finale.
The house I grew up in had one of those little Dansette record players and just four LPs – Vince Hill’s Greatest Hits being about the most cutting edge. So this was the first time I’d heard a proper rock ‘n’ roll song at any real volume, and it was like I’d been plugged into the mains. I had goose pimples and shivers; I’d never experienced anything so uplifting. Two and half minutes later in a state of religious-like ecstasy/shock I asked God if he happened to know who the song was by. Not only did he know, but he owned a copy – or at least his mum did. I asked if there was any way I could come over to hear it again. He lived a few miles from me, but he ended up arranging for me to stay the following weekend.
Along with Oldies But Goldies (the compilation ‘Bad Boy’ came from) the Goddards also owned With The Beatles, A Hard Day’s Night and Revolver, plus a proper stereo – a revelation in itself.
I was soon staying over as often as I could, and through their music God and I became best friends. Songs like ‘Devil in Her Heart,’ and ‘I’m Happy Just to Dance With You’ formed the perfect soundtrack to our endless discussions about the girls we fancied and how we planned to win them. Of the four albums, Revolver was the most intriguing. I couldn’t even work out what some of the instruments were – even their voices sounded strange. God told me they’d been “on drugs” while making it, something I’d always considered dangerous and sleazy. Now I wasn’t so sure.
There was only so much his family could take of me playing the same four records more or less on repeat. They had some other interesting stuff like Elvis and the Stones, but The Beatles always seemed to hold an extra magic, and I was also becoming curious about their other albums. It was time to buy my first record.
As my birthday was approaching, I asked my mum for some German greatest hits collection (the only Beatles record our local shop had in stock.) By the time I’d rendered that near unplayable, it was coming up to Christmas, so I got her to order their first album Please Please Me, while my brother and I managed to talk my dad into buying a Winthronics music centre as a present for the house.
For the next couple of months, as soon as I came in from school I’d run straight to our living room, put on the headphones and play both sides straight through, and if I didn’t have too much homework, both sides again. Instantly I’d be transported to a realm of chiming guitars and aching harmonies sung by people who knew the agony of unrequited love that I was currently experiencing, but could somehow turn it into the most joyous sound ever. “There’s a place, where I can go…”
I still love that album. Some consider it a bit throwaway, but if you can get past the light subject matter, it’s packed with soul and drenched in atmosphere. I was delighted when years later I discovered John rated it as one their top three.
I started saving my pocket money, and a couple of months later bought Beatles For Sale via mail order, followed by a second-hand copy of Rubber Soul – quickly becoming my new favourite. At some point a friend passed on some Italian two-EP set containing six songs from Sgt. Pepper. If Revolver was a bit out there, this sounded like it was beamed from another planet.
While I’d believed we only had four LPs in our house, it turned out this wasn’t quite the case. One day an image came into my head of a white, square, flat object I vaguely remembered gathering dust on a shelf in my eldest brother’s room. I ran up, and sure enough, sitting there the whole time was a copy of the White Album bought during his brief hippy phase. It was especially fortunate being their one double and therefore most expensive. I’d got used to their albums sounding very different from one another, but it was the first time they sounded unhappy to me. At times the atmosphere bordered on sinister. Still brilliant, of course.
A few weeks later I was sent to boarding school – a miserable experience where music was one of the only pleasures. Through some judicious buying and selling, I added Help and Magical Mystery Tour to my collection, along with other stuff like The Yardbirds, Dylan and The Kinks.
During the first set of holidays I hooked up with God, but something had changed. He was now listening to Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, who he actually claimed were as good as The Beatles. Luckily, I’d found a new Beatle buddy, Anthony ‘Harold’ Wilson. Like me, he was learning guitar and didn’t seem to mind accompanying me on the songs I’d been writing since first hearing ‘Bad Boy’.
Harold also had a radio, and every Sunday we’d tune in to the Old Record Club and add names like The Yardbirds and The Lovin’ Spoonful to our list of artists to explore. A big problem prior to the internet and CD reissues was simply finding a copy of whatever you wanted to buy. You could go to great lengths just to listen to something you’d heard good reports of. I remember spending a whole lunch break with my ear pressed to a door where someone was playing Live at the Hollywood Bowl – a muffled recording at the best of times.
As I added Magical Mystery Tour and the full-length Sgt. Pepper to my collection, buying Beatles records was becoming an increasingly bittersweet experience, aware that with each purchase I was getting closer to when there’d be no more new Beatle music to hear.
That day has long since passed, but while I probably haven’t heard a proper new Beatles song since I was 16, they continue to bring enormous pleasure. Numerous times I’ve found myself standing under some crappy speaker in a bar or shop when their music came on unexpectedly, transfixed by some unusual percussion part or wandering bass line I’d somehow never fully appreciated before and couldn’t leave until the last note had faded.
Reading this, you may have been reminded of someone similarly obsessed you went to school or maybe once worked with. I’m not just talking about your regular fan who owns four or five albums and thinks they were a great band. I’m talking about the out-and-out fanatic who owns every single album, some solo records, maybe some bootlegs and items of memorabilia and to whom they weren’t just a great band, but by far and away the greatest of all time. Give them the opportunity and they’ll tell their own story of the record that got them hooked, the friends they made as a result and how as much as they love other music, no one else seems to do it for them on quite the same level.
All major artists have their fanatics, but there’s a level of obsession with The Beatles you rarely see among fans of acts like The Stones or Led Zep, and evidenced by the books they seem to constantly devour. Of the 2,000-plus so far published, it’s not uncommon for a serious fan to have read 20 or 30. One friend and fellow obsessive has two shelves devoted solely to them. Stones or Led Zep fans might own every album and adorn their walls with their posters, but they rarely read 30 books on them. I’m not sure there’s been that many written on the latter.
Along with this obsession, The Beatles seem to inspire a unique form of contempt. To some, the mere mention of their name risks a torrent of abuse and vitriolic attacks on everything from their image to Ringo’s drumming to individual songs (expect ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ and ‘The Frog Chorus’ to get a mention). If pushed, they may concede to liking a couple of their songs, usually – though not necessarily – written by John, who they’ll probably admit some respect for, though of course it was George Martin they really owed their success to.
I’ve noticed it’s fans of the aforementioned major acts, The Stones, Led Zep, etc., who are most likely to come out with this stuff, which I don’t think is a coincidence. Rather than hating them, I suspect it’s more that they consider them (vastly) overrated and hearing them constantly referred to as ‘The Greatest Band of All Time’ (t.m.) above whoever they think deserves that title is bound to stick in the craw eventually. There also seems to be a confusion, because they genuinely don’t get why so many people are in awe of what to them is a slightly above-average pop band or why they haven’t gone the way of people like The Hollies or Cliff Richard, also huge in their day, but increasingly irrelevant with each passing year. Instead of diminishing their status, time has consolidated it, making their achievements appear even more extraordinary as they continue to outsell any existing band decades after their split (the recent 1 collection was the fastest selling album of all time).
For the benefit of such people, I thought I’d use this opportunity to try and explain the fascination and why even if you can’t stand their music, you should still be amazed by them. Plus I’ll take any excuse to talk about them. So if you are willing, try to forget the suits and ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ for a moment and imagine a time when they were just one of several hundred unsigned acts schlepping around the Liverpool circuit in search of a break and without even a regular drummer.
Their first bit of luck occurred in 1960 when, having failed to secure his first three choices, Liverpool impresario, Alan Williams, booked them to play a three-month residency in Hamburg where he had an arrangement with another promoter. This also enabled them to persuade local drummer Pete Best into joining the band. It wasn’t quite the showbiz opportunity they were expecting, as they found themselves playing a run down venue away from the centre and their accommodation a windowless storeroom in a nearby cinema.
After a few weeks, they were moved to a busier club in the Reeperbahn, Hamburg’s red light district, where they would play up to eight hours a night to a rowdy crowd of sailors, gangsters and tourists aided by a locally available amphetamine called Preludin.
Following a dispute with a rival promoter, police were tipped off to George’s underage status, and he was sent home. Then a few days later Paul and Pete were deported on a dubious charge of arson.
By all accounts they returned a different band, blowing away audiences from their first appearance at the Litherland Town Hall.
As soon as George turned 18, they went back to Hamburg where they would headline the prestigious Top Ten Club and also got to make their first official recording as backing band for Tony Sheridan on ‘My Bonnie.’
Sporting new haircuts and with Paul now on bass duties, they seemed to have taken things as far as they could, when a customer at the NEMS record store in Liverpool asked for a copy of ‘My Bonnie,’ prompting its manager Brian Epstein to check them out at The Cavern Club where they now had a lunchtime residency. (Original bassist Stu Sutcliffe had decided to remain with his new fiancee Astrid in Hamburg where, tragically, he would die of a brain haemorrhage just a few months later.)
Despite never having managed a band, he immediately offered to take them on and was soon making regular trips to London, home to all the major record labels. He’d been turned down by all of them when a cutting room engineer suggested he try George Martin, A and R head at Parlophone, an EMI subsidiary that specialised in comedy records, who was apparently looking for a strong rock ‘n’ roll band in order to branch out.
It’s fitting they would end up on a comedy label, as according to Martin it was their sense of humour that ultimately won him over. Having got them to run through some numbers, he listed various areas he felt needed work and then asked if there was anything they didn’t like.
“Well, I don’t like your tie for a start,” deadpanned a young George Harrison.
There was a couple of seconds silence before the room erupted. Engineer Norman Smith: “…the next fifteen to twenty minutes were pure entertainment…by the time they left, I had tears running down my face.”
Martin’s main concern was their drummer, one shared by the others, and a couple of days before signing the contract, Pete “unluckiest man in pop” Best was ousted in favour of Ringo, a more solid and versatile player who they also got along with much better.
Their first single ‘Love Me Do’ made a respectable, if not earth-shattering, Number 17. The initial contract was for two 45s with an option on EMI’s part to release an album depending on their success – so a lot rested on the follow-up.
Martin wanted them to record ‘How Do You Do It?’ written by an independent songwriter, but John and Paul had a new track they were keen to use called ‘Please Please Me’. After some re-working, Martin conceded it was superior, and six weeks later it was Number 1.
EMI picked up the option and granted them 10 hours of studio time – scheduled for their one day off supporting Helen Shapiro on her UK tour – in which they completed the entirety of the Please, Please Me album.
Within a month it topped the LP charts where it remained for an unprecedented 36 weeks – deposed only by their second release With The Beatles. The UK was now fully in the grip of Beatlemania with scenes of hysteria greeting every appearance. Despite this and three more UK Number 1s – each outselling the last – EMI’s American division Capitol had yet to give them an official release.
Finally, Epstein convinced them to get behind ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand,’ and within three weeks it was Number 1 in the Billboard Charts, going on to sell 12 million copies worldwide.
In another of the perfectly timed coincidences that seemed to mark their rise, a few months prior to this, the host of America’s biggest entertainment show Ed Sullivan saw the phenomenon first-hand when on a visit to London his plane was held up by fans awaiting their return from a Swedish TV appearance. He offered them top billing on his show, allowing them to make their US TV debut to an estimated audience of 73 million people, the highest viewing figure ever recorded. (During the broadcast, youth crime dropped to its lowest levels in decades.)
With the country emerging from the shock of the Kennedy assassination, the smiling mop-tops with the funny British accents were just what was needed to lift the collective spirit. Capitol began releasing everything they’d been sitting on, until the band that couldn’t find a deal two years earlier held all of the Top 5 singles placings and a further fifteen in the Top 100 – an extraordinary feat no one has come close to matching.
They would release a further sixteen UK singles and nine more albums (all but one making the top spot) until on April 4, 1970 a statement was issued to say they were calling it a day – by which time they’d revolutionized just about every aspect of the industry, from songwriting, presentation and production to the basic business model itself.
To appreciate their impact, it helps to consider the climate in which they first appeared. With rock’s pioneers either dead (Eddie Cochran, Buddy Holly, Richie Valens), disgraced (Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry) or gone soft (Elvis), the British charts were mostly filled with schmaltzy balladeers or watered-down versions of US R ‘n’ B hits. It was looking like the naysayers were right and rock ‘n’ roll really was just a passing fad.
Even by 1962 standards, ‘Love Me Do’ was not a sophisticated record. What it did have was a raw energy and genuine spirit – qualities long absent from the UK charts at the time. With their collarless suits and comparatively long hair, they also looked like no one else and were unusual in not having an identifiable front man – even their drummer sometimes sang lead.
As a wave of acts began copying the Beatle template, the Vince Eagers and Dickie Prides who’d been clogging up the charts found themselves looking almost instantly passé, and many watched helpless as long chart runs dried up within a few months.
Though the US scene wasn’t in as bad shape, their effect was no less seismic. Sales of Vox amps and electric guitars soared following their Ed Sullivan appearance, and many of the biggest acts of the decade either formed or changed direction as a result of seeing them. Their American success also opened the door for other UK acts to break through. Prior to their arrival, only two UK acts had made the Number 1 spot – both with instrumentals. The year following ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand,’ the so-called “British Invasion” accounted for almost half of US chart entries.
What really marked The Beatles out was that they wrote their own material. A few US acts had done this, but it was almost unheard of in the UK, the job being assigned to staid Tin Pan Alley professionals.
As they began turning out hit after hit for others as well as themselves, acts like The Stones, The Kinks and The Who began to try their hand (Jagger and Richards started writing as a direct result of watching them finish ‘I Wanna Be Your Man’ in front of them – which had provided The Stones with their first big hit). Soon it wasn’t just acceptable for artists to write their own material, but expected – sounding the death knell for Tin Pan Alley’s dominance almost at a stroke.
The dead wood cleared, the scene was now set for the revolution that was to follow.
If ‘Love Me Do’ was basic, ‘Please Please Me’ took each element a small step forward, with more complex harmonies, a proper middle eight and with the title some wordplay. Their fourth single ‘She Loves You’ began unusually with the chorus, brought in the third person for the first time and ended on an exotic major 6th.. Paul McCartney said they felt especially proud of the advances made on that record, and from then on, it seems to have been a conscious decision not to repeat a trick and where possible to break some new ground with each release.
Before starting their third album A Hard Day’s Night, EMI gave Martin access to a four-track tape machine, allowing them to create new sonic textures by double tracking vocals and adding extra instruments. Their curiosity piqued, they were soon using the studio as an instrument in itself. To satisfy their endless demands for new sounds, Martin and his engineers began pushing the equipment beyond its intended limits, deliberately over-driving inputs, rewiring speakers to act as microphones, putting vocals through rotating organ speakers, manipulating tape speeds, etc. Much of this experimentation had to be done covertly as EMI had strict rules governing recording levels and even how far a mic could be placed from the source.
Incorporating influences from anywhere and everywhere – country, soul, classical, avant garde, etc. – and the effortless ease they seemed to master any style they attempted (a legacy of their Hamburg days when they’d extended their sets with jazz standards and songs from musicals) left their contemporaries open-mouthed, and no sooner had they rewritten the rulebook, they’d torn it up again to reinvent themselves once more.
All this led to an astonishing rate of progress. Less than two years from the release of ‘She Loves You,’ they’d recorded ‘Yesterday,’ and barely a year from that had made ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’.
This put pressure on other artists to experiment and progress too or risk being left behind, until it became a kind of game among the biggest acts to be the first to introduce some new instrument or effect or make their record the heaviest, longest, loudest, etc.
For perhaps the only time in history, labels actually encouraged their artists to take risks. Radio also got in on the act. It seems incredible now, but Creedence Clearwater Revival deliberately made their version of ‘Suzie Q’ as long as possible so as to attract airplay (it worked too – launching them to huge international success).
There was so much cross-fertilisation occurring. It’s plain inaccurate to credit all of this progress to The Beatles, but the extent to which they led and galvanised the movement can be seen by the rapid slowdown in experimentation that followed their split and the sudden divergence of genres (folk, prog, glam, etc.).
My friend with the two shelves of Beatles books once told me the reason he thought people read so much on them was because they were looking for some kind of clue as to how they did it.
I knew what he meant, because when you look at what they achieved in the seven and a half years they were making records, it just doesn’t seem possible. As well as 11/12 studio albums, 22 singles (two re-recorded in German), 13 EPs and seven fan club singles, they appeared in five feature films, made numerous TV appearances and promo clips and recorded over a hundred radio sessions. This was on top of general promotional duties including several hundred press and radio interviews. For the first half of their career they were also on tour almost constantly. Amazingly, this took precedence over recording commitments which would be squeezed in around them.
Individually they released seven solo albums, two film soundtracks (including Paul’s Oscar-winning score to The Family Way) and either wrote, played on or produced over fifty tracks for other artists, several making Number 1. Ringo also starred in two films. John starred in one, produced several shorts, put on a couple of art exhibitions and wrote two books.
They also lent their support to various political causes, spent two months studying Transcendental Meditation in India, had to deal with various scandals and tragedies, including the furore over John’s “bigger than Christ” remark, drug busts, an obscenity charge and the death of Brian Epstein leading to the legal and logistical nightmare that would be Apple, while still somehow finding the time to attend to the everyday personal stuff, getting married (twice for John), having kids, buying houses, etc.
This would be less impressive if the music didn’t hold up, so check the following list: ‘I Saw Her Standing There,’ ‘All My Loving,’ ‘I Should Have Known Better,’ ‘And I Love Her,’ ‘If I Fell,’ ‘Eight Days a Week,’ ‘You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,’ ‘Yesterday,’ ‘Nowhere Man,’ ‘Michelle,’ ‘Norwegian Wood,’ ‘Got to Get You Into My Life,’ ‘Good Day Sunshine,’ ‘With a Little Help From My Friends,’ ‘Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,’ ‘She’s Leaving Home,’ ‘When I’m 64,’ ‘Fool on the Hill,’ ‘Back in the USSR,’ ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,’ ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps,’ ‘Octopus’ Garden,’ ‘Here Comes the Sun,’ ‘The Long and Winding Road,’ ‘Across the Universe.’
You may not like all of these songs, but even if you’re only a casual music fan, you’ll most likely know or at least recognise all of them. Why is that remarkable?
Because not one was even a UK single.
While most acts struggle to produce one memorable song in their career, The Beatles were churning out bona fide classics on an almost daily basis. In a single 18-month period they wrote and recorded Rubber Soul, Revolver and Sgt. Pepper as well as three singles not included on those albums, ‘Day Tripper’/’We Can Work It Out,’ ‘Paperback Writer’/’Rain’ and what is often cited as the greatest pairing of all time: ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’/’Penny Lane.’
So how did they do it? One key factor was simply how hard they worked – something they gained a reputation for from their first session, when they were the only act EMI staff saw rehearse through their lunch break. They would also be the first to work beyond midnight, becoming their standard pattern (to the irritation of their engineers).
They were also fortunate in having two primary songwriters, either of whom could have made them hugely successful. This increased both the amount they produced and its variety, with Paul’s poppier, more upbeat material offering the perfect compliment to John’s more downbeat, introspective stuff – a reflection of their contrasting personalities. Though it was rare for a Lennon/McCartney song post-1963 to be a genuine co-write, they continued to assist one another with their opposing natures, again helping offset the other’s worst excesses (famously, John’s “It couldn’t get much worse” line which he contributed to Paul’s ‘Getting Better’).
Their working methods also reflected their differing personality types. A self-confessed “lazy bastard” with a tendency to inertia, John usually worked from bursts of inspiration, becoming impatient if an idea didn’t come together quickly. This was in marked contrast to Paul’s disciplined, more craftsman-like approach.
Paul was also a renowned perfectionist. He would often come in early or stay behind late to work on his parts. His attention to detail was such that on ‘Penny Lane’ he overdubbed no less than seven separate keyboard parts, some recorded at different speeds, to subtly alter their tone, before he’d got the sound he was after. On the same song he brought in a double bassist to play one barely audible “creaking” noise to accompany the line about the banker.
Over time Paul would become their unofficial musical director (he was the only one to attend almost every session) and became known as a hard taskmaster, pushing them to do take after take if he thought they had a better one in them. This didn’t always sit comfortably with the others – especially John, who’d originally formed the band. While he may not have minded sharing the limelight, it’s unlikely he’d have wanted to concede it. In fact, it was his assertion they’d become “side men to Paul” he later gave as the main reason for their break-up.
During the ’70s John would launch a series of bitter personal attacks on his former partner both in interview and song. These should be seen in the context of the legal battles they were going through at this time, as for the majority of their career their relationship was one of great mutual respect – Paul was the only person John deferred to musically or would entrust to finish a song if he’d lost interest or run out of ideas.
If Paul’s domineering occasionally rubbed John up the wrong way, it was the perfect antidote to his laziness, and there’s no way he or the band could have achieved what they did without him. Between John’s determination not to be usurped and Paul’s natural workaholism and love of an artistic challenge lay the perfect formula to spur each other to ever greater heights. If either dominated an album, the other would try to reassert themselves on the next, or if some artistic breakthrough had been achieved, the other would feel compelled to match or outdo it. Thus hot on the heels of Paul’s ‘And I Love Her,’ John came back with ‘If I Fell,’ while John’s tribute to his Liverpool childhood ‘Strawberry Fields’ was quickly followed by Paul’s ‘Penny Lane.’
Those who believe John to have been the genius of the band should consider how some of his greatest works would have sounded minus Paul’s contributions. Take away the tape loops, backwards guitar and drum patterns, all of which he provided or suggested for ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, for example, and it would be half the song. Even towards the end, Paul was mainly doing what he’d always done, though this was thrown into sharper relief by having to compensate for his partner who – distracted by Yoko and a growing heroin habit – was producing much less by this point. And while John had all but given up attending sessions unless he’d written the song, Paul remained the ultimate team player, putting as much effort into his partner’s work as his own.
Something else suggests they were much closer than the impression left by the post-split fall-out. Not long after first meeting, John’s mother was killed in a hit-and-run accident. A year or so before that, Paul had lost his own mother to cancer. He said this created an unspoken bond between them that didn’t exist before. It may also explain the emotional weight apparent even on their earliest recordings and which is lacking in many of their imitators, who sounded like boys in comparison.
Of course The Beatles were not only John and Paul. In the same way they’d relied on one another, they could not have realised their ambitions without their extraordinarily talented lead guitarist and drummer who never failed to rise to the occasion. It’s hard to imagine two musicians better suited and with the ability to play in such a vast array of styles. George would also blossom into a great songwriter himself, whose work often rivalled theirs.
As important as their musical abilities was their temperament. Few would have had the patience to endure the endless re-takes or the humility to follow Paul’s often exacting instructions. George was so unassuming he even gave away the solos on some of his own compositions (to Paul on ‘Taxman’ and Eric Clapton on ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps,’) while Ringo had to be coaxed into playing his only drum solo on ‘The End.’
Massive credit must also be given to George Martin. Again, it’s hard to think of a producer more suited – with the open-mindedness to have let them record their own material when this was almost unheard of (and continued to be so encouraging in this endeavour), plus the technical skills to turn hummed melodies or vague instructions (“make it sound like 1,000 monks chanting,” “I want to be able to smell the sawdust”) into fully realised pieces.
And they may not have met him, or been signed at all, if not for the faith and dogged determination of Brian Epstein who was insisting they’d be bigger than Elvis, when they were essentially a covers band.
In a way, the Beatles have become victims of their own success. Taught in music classes and quoted by trendy vicars, they will never have the cool cachet of a Doors or Velvet Underground.
Techniques they helped innovate such as ADT, flanging, close-miking, promo videos, printing lyrics on sleeves, etc., have been so copied, they’re now just standard parts of the musical vocabulary, obscuring how radical they were when first introduced. Their enormous commercial success has also led to an (over-) familiarity that can breed contempt and suspicions they were pandering to it (not helped by images of them in their suits playing mainly to screaming girls).
While they made some compromises early on in terms of presentation, there would never be any concessions when it came to their music. Sexual in-jokes and early references to old age and death show a remarkable lack of regard to maintaining their fanbase given they’d started as a teen phenomenon. Lines like “I used to be cruel to my woman, I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved” are dark even by modern standards, and by the time of The White Album – in particular ‘Revolution No 9’ – their attitude bordered on contempt.
Such risk-taking is all the more admirable given how unappreciated much of it was. . The most ground-breaking tracks on Help and Revolver (‘Ticket To Ride’ and ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, respectively) were voted least popular in The Beatles Book, their official fan magazine. Critics could also be disparaging, often attacking them for being ‘too clever’ or damning them with faint praise, e.g., the Melody Maker reviewer who found Rubber Soul pleasant enough, but doubted anyone would remember the songs in three months’ time (!!!)
Another reason for their relative lack of credibility are the family-orientated songs they released throughout their career such as ‘Yellow Submarine,’ ‘Octopus’ Garden,’ ‘Ob-Bla-Di, Ob-La-Da’ and the much maligned ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.’ But even here they went far beyond the call of duty, spending longer on the latter two than almost anything else they recorded, and there are some clever musical tricks within the deceptively catchy melodies (e.g., the irregular bar lengths introducing the verses on ‘When I’m 64’).
GOD, THE FIFTH BEATLE? Harvard professor-turned-acid guru Timothy Leary described The Beatles as “Divine messiahs” and “rock stars become holy men…sent by God.” It might sound like LSD-induced hyperbole, but when one considers the coincidences and chance meetings with just the right people at just the right time, it’s hard not to wonder if fate played a hand. Even minor idiosyncrasies worked in their favour, such as Paul’s left-handedness, giving them a visual symmetry that made them the only band recognizable just from their silhouette. The mere fact four people, so talented and compatible musically, visually and mentally should grow up within a few miles of one another seems to defy the odds. (Not my school friend, the other one.)
There’s something so balanced and whole about their meld of personalities – Paul’s innate optimism, John’s pessimism/cynicism, George’s spirituality, Ringo’s grounded lack of pretension (who else would take a case of baked beans to the Maharishi’s ashram or compare it to Butlins?) – like the four archetypes of man in one band, each containing some of the other, and capable of expressing all the aspects of the human condition, from the intellectual to the profane, the mundane to the spiritual.
The sense of (karmic?) balance seems particularly strong with John and Paul. Any quality lacking in one, the other seemed to have in spades. This is also evident in their later solo work. While often brilliant, it seemed to be crying out for the exact elements the other would have provided – a bit of edge or lyrical depth to Paul’s, some melodic sweetening or a memorable bassline for John’s.
It’s interesting too that the song widely regarded as their pinnacle, ‘A Day in the Life,’ was the result of fusing two sections they’d been working on independently and which neither could complete – as if the Muse was treating them as a single entity.
But it was when the four of them played together that the real magic happened. As those who saw them work observed, they could spend hours playing with sounds and switching between instruments – apparently achieving nothing. Then suddenly some force seemed to take over. The parts they’d been working on independently would all coalesce, with each knowing instinctively when to step forward or when to hold back, the so-called ‘four-headed monster’ thinking and acting as one.
But if their success was purely due to luck, it’s frightening to think what would have happened had any of those chance meetings or coincidences not occurred, if the customer at NEMS hadn’t asked for ‘My Bonnie’ or the engineer who recommended George Martin had been on his lunch break.
Because not only might we not have all of their music, but probably also that of The Stones, The Who, The Kinks, The Yardbirds, The Byrds, The Lovin’ Spoonful, The Mamas and the Papas, The Monkees, Crosby, Stills and Nash, etc. – and certainly not in the same form. (As well providing them with their first big hit and inspiring them to write, The Stones were signed to Decca on George’s recommendation.)
Even acts that weren’t overtly Beatle-esque were often influenced in some form. Motown producers would check every Beatles release to see where they were up to sonically. John Cale said The Velvet Underground had to “completely rethink our game” after hearing ‘Norwegian Wood.’
There’s also the countless acts who came later, and again, it’s not just the obvious ones. German experimentalists Can formed after hearing ‘I Am The Walrus,’ Ozzy Osbourne said Paul was his idol and called them “the Mozarts of our time,” The Ramones named themselves after Paul’s stage name in Hamburg, Lemmy’s favourite album is Please Please Me, Kurt Cobain said they were his favourite band, Gilby Clarke of Guns and Roses said Lennon was his favourite writer, Brian May said Queen saw them as their “Bible.” You’d be hard pushed to find a major band that doesn’t include at least one obsessive.
And it wasn’t just the musical landscape they changed. For better or worse, their use of cannabis and LSD encouraged millions to experiment, and when they renounced drugs in favour of meditation, it played a major part in bringing spiritual practices to the West.
I realise too that it’s also because of people like me gushing on about them in quasi-mystical terms that many are put off. But I can’t help it. To me they really were perfect. I love how even their mistakes were taken to the extreme and seem somehow essential to the “plan.”
For example, I can’t stand ‘Revolution No 9’. To me it’s eight minutes of self-indulgent, migraine-inducing cacophony. But I love that it exists and that the most unlistenable track of the era was made by the same band that produced ‘She Loves You.’
Or Apple. Not just a slightly naive attempt to create a utopian business empire, but the embodiment of faith over reason, that would fall into such disarray it would end up almost bankrupting them, leading to the hiring of Allen Klein (probably the most unscrupulous manager in rock history) and a betrayal of all its ideals that would take almost a decade of intense legal wranglings to untangle.
While I’m personally in the camp that thinks Yoko was a controlling, manipulative nightmare, I love her part in the story and that she has literally become the byword for nightmarish, controlling wives/girlfriends.
Though a part of me wishes they’d continued making music, I’m also pleased they broke up when they did, at the top of their game, all looking great and before any of them had even turned 30 (George was just 27 when they split!.) And it almost had to end in such bitter acrimony so they could never spoil the myth with some disappointing come-back album or embarrassing reunion concert.
There’s a couple of things I’m not wild about – rhyming “two” with “too” on the middle eight of ‘Do You Want to Know a Secret’ and the Hammond organ on ‘Mr Moonlight.’ But for me, their only out-and-out fuck-up was on Abbey Road.
The final track was intended to be ‘The End.’ However, an engineer who’d been instructed to keep everything they recorded tacked a discarded version of ‘Her Majesty’ to the end of the master reel. When Paul heard this come on unexpectedly, he liked the effect and decided to keep it. Had he stuck to the original plan, their last album would have ended with the lines: “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make” – about the most perfect coda to their career I could think of.
I guess they were human after all.