The series of articles on the Beatles albums is intended to give some context to readers who might be coming to this new, with the added twist of trying to pin down what on earth was happening in North America to all these albums which we Brits know so well. As I note at the beginning, there's no way I could be anything like comprehensive since there's so much material out there, but I try to keep a reasonably clear framework for each post.
It took more than four years to formally wind The Beatles up - most bands would have put out a statement and gone their separate ways, but The Beatles weren't most bands. For the whole of the 1970s, they each tried to forge a solo career while trying to protect the legacy of what their band had been; from time to time, one or other of them would pop up on one of Ringo's albums - all four of them appear on 1973's 'Ringo' - and many tales are told of how or whether the various friendships survived the breakup. In truth, there's a lot of nonsense talked about how, in particular, Lennon and McCartney were or weren't still on speaking terms after the end of the Beatles. The reality is that while each blamed the other for the way things had gone, and they sniped at each other in public from time to time, you can't break a bond like that, and particularly after Lennon got his 'lost weekend' out of his system, they were on friendly terms. Of course Paul wanted John to go back to the way things were, and John had no interest in doing anything he'd already done, and that fundamental difference would never be resolved, but they weren't strangers - McCartney would turn up on Lennon's doorstep from time to time, guitar in hand, and they'd hang out and talk, and never quite get round to playing any music together. After a while, this, too, petered out - they lived separate lives and perhaps had drifted too far apart musically for it ever to have worked.
That didn't stop people trying, of course - at regular intervals through the 1970s, someone or other would offer staggering amounts of money to get the band back together, but it was never clear to what purpose - to do concerts? To make a record? To try and find something they hadn't already done? None of them really needed the money (imagine what the royalty cheques look like each month), and they had moved on.
John Lennon outlived his band by only ten years, of course. In that time, he released a number of solo albums and collaborations with Yoko, none of them unequivocally successful, but with enough standout songs to make the compilation 'Shaved Fish' worthy of your time, although I think it's long out of print. After much deliberation, I'm going with '#9 Dream' as my representative track of that early seventies period:
After a five year hiatus, Lennon and Ono returned to recording with 'Double Fantasy'. It's probably heresy to say it now, but it's over-long and self-indulgent with some of the songs sounding suspiciously close to the mawkish material he used to rail against. It is, of course, entirely overshadowed by the fact that Lennon was brutally murdered on December 8th 1980. I've written at length before about that day, and how for a somewhat idealistic 18-year-old living away from home for the first time, it felt like the world really did spin off its axis for a bit. It was certainly my personal 'end of innocence' moment, and there's a tiny part of me which I don't think will ever get over waking up to the news that John Lennon was dead at only 40 years old.
George Harrison wasted little time in letting everyone know just how much material he'd been sitting on in the final Beatles years. Before 1970 was out, he released a triple album, 'All Things Must Pass'. Now, there has never in the history of recorded music been a triple album with no flaws, no dull moments and no weak spots, but 'All Things Must Pass' is as close as anyone's come, I think (although the live jams on sides five and six are pushing it a little). The sheer volume of music on it is staggering, and was staggering at the time. People genuinely had no idea just how much Harrison had been holding back, and it remains one of, if not the most successful of all Beatle solo albums; you really should give it a listen. George spent the rest of his life doing pretty much whatever he wanted to, from enormous charity concerts for the people of Bangladesh, to funding Monty Python movies and immersing himself in Hinduism and Indian mysticism. His 1970s albums are generally worth investigating, but tail off as his urgent need to express himself was satisfied. Always one of life's great collaborators, he perhaps found most joy later in life as a member of the Travelling Wilburys, a fluid and enjoyable supergroup which had some great success in the 1990s. However, I'm going back to 'Living in the Material World' for my Harrison song; 'Give me Love':
George Harrison died of cancer in 2001 aged only 56. In any other age, he would have been remembered as one of the greatest songwriters and performers of all time, but all his obituaries had the word 'Beatles' in the first line, and while I'm sure he had long since made peace with that, I'm not sure the rest of us should. George was an extraordinary musician who had the great good fortune and equal misfortune to have been in a band with two of only a very small handful of songwriters who were better than him. There's a lot more to George's life than I've skimmed over here; if you'd like to know more, seek out Martin Scorsese's documentary film 'Living in the Material World'; well worth an afternoon of your life. I can't move on without two more songs, however: George's tribute to John, the upbeat but sad 'All Those Years Ago':
and his later musing about what it all meant, 'When We Was Fab':
Ringo Starr has a permanent place in the lives of my children, and probably yours, as the voice of 'Thomas the Tank Engine', and has spent many years happily touring and recording in Ringo's All-Starr Band, an ever-changing cast of supporting musicians. He did spend most of the 1970s trying to establish a proper solo career, with only the albums 'Ringo' and 'Goodnight Vienna' perhaps worth spending any of your time on. He was always a much in demand drummer, and pretty much everyone he ever worked with appeared somewhere on one of his albums, which he has continued to produce - 'Give More Love' was released just over a year ago, but didn't trouble the charts any more than the previous dozen or so had. Ringo's singing voice did improve, but really not enough to carry album after album of solo material. He also developed into a reasonable songwriter, although he always works with at least one writing partner, and it's hard to know just how much input he has into all these songs which bear his name. Still, he seems happy and is perhaps least burdened of any of them by the Beatles name, although it took him a long time to come to terms with the demise. I've chosen 'Back Off Boogaloo' to represent Ringo's solo years, which can be read as criticism of McCartney while very much echoing the glam rock of Marc Bolan:
Paul McCartney is, and perhaps pretty much always was, the keeper of the Beatles flame. He has had easily the most successful and lauded solo career of them all, and has throughout it all paid his respects to the band which made him. Although he has spent much of the past 50 years promoting his own material, even at the height of Wings and his most popular solo periods, there has always been an acknowledgement that he also wrote some of the most iconic songs of the 20th century. The further time has separated him from his partnership with Lennon, the harsher critics have been about his songwriting, but whatever you think, he has delivered dozens of memorable and iconic songs in his own right. After the first two solo albums he wasted little time in putting together a proper band in Wings, who would write and record together and tour in the way that the likes of Led Zeppelin were demonstrating to be both possible and lucrative. There's a case to be made for 'Band on the Run' and 'Venus and Mars' as the strongest post-Beatles McCartney work; both are worth investigating if you've never heard them. Once the seventies were over and the fuss had died down to an extent, Wings were disbanded and Paul spent the time writing and recording a variety of solo projects, from straightforward pop albums to film scores to classical compositions; when your name's Paul McCartney, you can record pretty much anything you like and someone will buy it.
He has found his apparently callous and dismissive reaction to Lennon's murder hard to live down; a lot of the nonsense spouted about their relationship came from the fact that, caught unprepared and still reeling from the shock of it all, he called the death of the most important person in his adult life 'a drag' - I've always felt that Lennon would have understood and laughed; the rest of us were perhaps a little less forgiving. It took two years for the proper response to come out, but 'Here Today' from 'Tug of War' says it all:
Over the years, there have been glimpses of the old Paul - from 'Maybe I'm Amazed' to the Elvis Costello collaborations on 'Flowers in the Dirt', but that Paul McCartney didn't really survive the Beatles, although the one who did is still a pretty terrific songwriter and musician. There's just so much I could choose to represent solo Paul that in the end I'm stuck with the one which first opened my eyes to it all. I was eleven when I first heard 'Band on the Run' and it blew my tiny mind to the extent that I'm still searching for some of the pieces to this day:
Nothing about The Beatles was inevitable; they weren't destined to be the biggest band on the planet from the first time they met; at any one of a hundred points in time a different decision could have been taken and little or none of what we have today might have seen the light of day. With almost everything they did, they changed the course of first popular music, then the cultural zeitgeist, and eventually the history of the world. We treat everything they did, and especially every successive album with such reverence and pore over them all for meaning that sometimes we forget to just close our eyes and listen to the music, and sometimes we sit too deeply in the music and fail to understand the wider implications of what we're hearing. It's the reason so much has been written, in such exhaustive detail, about a dozen albums recorded in the space of only seven years by four young men from Liverpool who somehow found the levers and switches which work everything and gave them a good old scramble. The Sixties would still have happened without the Beatles; and, indeed, we tend to forget that for most people, the Beatles didn't impinge much on their lives at all as they went off to work in their pinstriped suits and their bowler hats (my father wore a hat to work until well into the 1970s). It's the generations who came after who really got to experience how much everything had changed, and how we took it all for granted. At this remove, I look at my rebellious teenaged self, eager to burn down the old ways of doing things in 1977 and embrace the anarchy, and think 'you idiot - you're trying to tear down something which has hardly got started' - the gap between The Beatles and Johnny Rotten is not as long as the Beatles' entire recording career, but everything was moving so fast, we didn't stop to think.
And now, we're all middle-aged, and we stop and think entirely too much. We long for simpler times, when the music was mind-blowing and unlike anything we'd ever heard before, and there was a new album along every few months to push us in more and different directions. But we are also the most fortunate generation - all of this music is right here, at our fingertips, and we can - and we should, more often than we do - take a long, slow stroll through it all from beginning to end and marvel at what we hear every step of the way. Working our way through the Beatles album catalogue has been every bit as surprising, enlightening and thrilling as I had hoped: so much forgotten or overlooked has snapped back into focus these past few weeks, and while I'll be glad to be able to devote at least a little more time to writing other things, I wouldn't have missed it for the world.
I was afraid I wouldn't have much to say on the Beatles, but I needn't have worried; I've barely scratched the surface, and I wish there had been more time and more space to dig even deeper. I know I'm supposed to be reviewing 'Past Masters', but there's no need - everything on that album has been covered; everything I wanted to say has been said. It's brilliant, because almost everything with The Beatles name on it is brilliant.
At ten o'clock in the morning of February 10th, 1963, Paul McCartney counted in the beginning of 'I Saw Her Standing There'. The confidence and joy of that count - the 'four!' exploding with all the energy in the world - not only kicked off an intense day of recording which blew the cobwebs off post-war Britain and later the world, but counted us all in to a new way of looking at, and hearing everything.
At ten o'clock in the morning of February 10th, 1963, Paul McCartney counted us in with the beginning of 'I Saw Her Standing There'. Fifty-six years later, pretty much to the day, we're still singing along.
So, having skipped over all of this, come with me back to the beginning of 1969…
The original idea for the next album (technically following 'Yellow Submarine', but we've been over this) was to do something stripped-down and back to basics. There would be a documentary made covering the creative process, things would be worked on down in Twickenham, and in the newly finished Apple studios in the basement at 3 Savile Row. It wasn't entirely clear who was producing it; Glyn Johns had been brought in to work alongside George Martin, and both of them seem to have been told that they were in charge at one point or another. While this was going on, Paul was trying to install Lee Eastman - his new girlfriend's father - as the new manager, while John was discussing business affairs with Allen Klein, a New York lawyer who seldom appears in a sentence without the word 'shark' popping up somewhere. Somehow, both men were put in charge of things, although that went about as well as the 'two producers' thing. As January wore on, there was enough material to try performing some of it as a live band. Everyone and his dog takes credit for the decision just to go up on the roof and do it, but whoever it was was the midwife to one of the last great iconic Beatles moments.
The gig on the roof wasn't really a concert, more a kind of extended rehearsal-cum-recording session. They only played the new songs, most of them more than once, and some of those recordings ended up on the eventual album. Things meander on for a while as winter turns to spring, but for all Paul's talk of a fresh start, no-one really seems to have much enthusiasm for any of these songs, or for pulling together and making an album out of them, and it all kind of peters out. The project, still called 'Get Back' at this point, is quietly shelved while Paul gets married, Ringo makes a film, John and Yoko do all the things they sing about in 'The Ballad of John and Yoko', and George has his tonsils out.
I posted the single version of 'Get Back' last time round; here's the B side, Joh's impassioned plea to Yoko, 'Don't Let Me Down:
At this point, we can switch back over to the 'Abbey Road' timeline, pausing only to appreciate George's B side to 'Ballad', 'Old Brown Shoe':
After the release of 'Abbey Road', and with Lennon effectively already out of the band, and releasing solo singles ('Cold Turkey', the first song credited solely to Lennon, making the split official, if still unannounced), the remainder of the Beatles organisation had to decide what to do now. To stall for time, 'Something' was released as a single - the first time a track from an already released album had been issued as a single, and another clue for those who were watching closely that all was not well. The various bits and pieces of the 'Get Back' project were worked on for a time, mostly without any band input. Ringo was working on a solo album (eventually to become 'Sentimental Journey'); John and Yoko released more 'Unfinished Music', and put up billboards all around the world proclaiming that war was over if we wanted it.
Lennon also went on the record at the turn of the year as 'considering' leaving the Beatles, although he was no longer recording with the other three, who had another shot at putting the 'Get Back' album together, this time as a soundtrack for the film which still hadn't been completed, but no-one liked it and it was all shelved again.
And then nothing happened for a while. Everyone worked on their own solo projects, and it seemed that the Beatles might just cease to be by default. The US album 'Hey Jude' appeared in April, the band never quite having managed to convince Capitol that not putting singles on albums was the way to go. Capitol simply scooped up all the otherwise unreleased bits and pieces and made yet another compilation - technically, this is the 19th Beatles album put out by Capitol / Apple in the US.
Then, suddenly, there was a new single - 'Let it Be', whose B side was recorded a couple of years before, and is probably not worth your time.
No, seriously, if you've never heard this, don't bother. It's the very definition of 'pratting about' and no amount of retrospective muttering about the Bonzos and Monty Python will excuse it. Oh, alright then, but don't say I didn't warn you:
By the end of March 1970, all four Beatles were hard at work making solo albums, and the game was up to the extent that the surviving 'Get Back' tapes were given over (by Allen Klein) to Phil Spector to see if he could do anything with them. The resulting mix was somehow signed off by all four Beatles and was set to be released as 'Let it Be' when Paul stunned the world by announcing that he was leaving the Beatles. Just how stunned the world actually was is open to conjecture at this point, since there had been rumblings for some time, but there was no internet, no social media, and it was easier for a band to keep things under wraps if they wanted. In the end, it seems it was as much business disagreements as anything which forced McCartney's hand; Apple was chaotic by this stage, and he disagreed with pretty much everything Allen Klein was doing. He had an album to promote, and he just wanted it all to be over.
The 'Let it Be' film and album came out at the beginning of May 1970, with the band in tatters, although not officially broken up. There were no illusions, however - this was the epitaph for a band who had stood the world on its head for seven years.
I'd love to say that 'Let it Be' is a magnificent way to go out; roaring into the sunset firing on all cylinders, but it just isn't. To be fair, what Spector was left to work with was a bit threadbare and unfinished, so it's something of a miracle that there's an album at all. However, of its just over half an hour of music, both 'Dig It' and 'Maggie Mae' are just 'mucking around' outtakes; 'Across the Universe' has already been released on a WWF compilation, and 'One After 909' is a song from the Quarrymen days - had the 'Get Back' project not ground to a halt, it's hard to make a case for any of them being on the finished album.
Which leaves eight tracks and some assorted chatter which Spector inserted, presumably either as padding or because he felt this was what the public wanted, a kind of rough and ready film soundtrack feel. Either way, it doesn't sound like a Beatles album, and that's mainly because it isn't really a Beatles album. We know this because everyone - most vocally Paul McCartney - expressed their displeasure over the years - Lennon felt the material was 'shit'; even George Martin famously wanted the production credit to read "produced by George Martin; overproduced by Phil Spector".
McCartey was incandescent at what Spector did to 'Long and Winding Road', but the last ever Beatles single (you know what I mean) is so ingrained in popular culture that it's hard to imagine it any other way. It's fair to say, I think, that the lush Mantovani strings don't really sit with the original concept of the 'back to basics' album which they tried to play on the rooftop all the way back in January 69. Those rooftop recordings - 'Dig a Pony', 'I've Got a Feeling' and 'One After 909' do have a power and immediacy to them which hint at what the full thing might have sounded like, but the songs themselves don't necessarily stand up to a lot of scrutiny, although I love the guitar licks in 'Dig a Pony'.
Elsewhere, there are some gems which might have revealed themselves as Beatles classics with a bit more work - 'Two of Us' in particular is affecting, especially if you see it as McCartney's plea to Lennon to give it all one more go; there's a great song in 'Across the Universe' which struggles to make itself heard above the weird production - again, had all four of them worked on it some more, who knows how it might have turned out. 'I Me Mine' and 'For You Blue' show two different sides of Harrison's songwriting, but neither of them seem to know exactly what they want to be.
All of which leaves three definitive Beatles songs - the two title tracks ('Get Back' perhaps the clearest vision of the sound Paul was originally driving at) and the overblown, overwrought 'Long and Winding Road', which as a plaintive piano song might have stood as the last despairing cry of a band as they dissolved, but as it is, stands as the Beatles contribution to lounge music. The Beatles had long been fascinated by the music of the US, but it was only when they put their uniquely British spin on things that they really took off. Trying to get to some kind of rootsy, authentic American sound here never really works, and then having someone who couldn't really give a shit about that come and pour his 'wall of sound' stuff all over it just makes it worse.
It's not awful; in fact, it's fascinating, but it has always sounded unfinished and sloppy to me, and it's probably the album I'm least familiar with. 'Let it Be… Naked' is worth your investigation, however - I'm not as bothered by the way McCartney wanted it to sound as I am intrigued by the ability to properly hear these songs, stripped of all the Spectory stuff. Listening to those versions this past week gave me a much clearer appreciation of the actual music.
Not great, not essential, not really a Beatles album. Fortunately, they'll forever be judged by nearly a dozen better albums, and we'll always have this picture of just how disjointed it all became right at the end.
OK, this could get quite messy, so I'm going to try it this way:
At the beginning of 1969, Paul McCartney became convinced that the only way to get the band working together again would be to go back to playing live. That eventually, and with marked reluctance particularly from George Harrison, became a vague idea to do one concert and an accompanying documentary chronicling the making of the album which would go with it. This became known as the 'Get Back' project, and took up a significant chunk of the early months of 1969. It also didn't go particularly well, as evidenced by the fact that Harrison properly walked out this time. As with Ringo the previous year, he was encouraged back into the fold, but with no manager looking after things, and competing factions demanding the right to oversee legal and financial matters, it seemed only a matter of time before everything crashed and burned.
All of this period properly belongs in the next post, but I'll just zip past the turmoil of the 'Get Back' project by noting that it eventually was shelved, although not before a single came out, featuring Billy Preston on keyboards:
A slightly different version would eventually show up on the next album, but this was pretty much the only thing to come out of the original 'Get Back' sessions. McCartney, despairing of what had become of his band, suggested that they all stop fannying about and go back to making records the way they used to, with George Martin in control and just using the instruments to hand. Billy Preston stuck around for a few sessions, since it seemed he did help the atmosphere, but in all other respects the idea was to get down to work as if the last three years had never happened. The first thing to come out of the new sessions was another single 'The Ballad of John and Yoko':
'Ballad' isn't in any real sense a Beatles song, featuring only John and Paul, and describing in some detail the travails of Lennon and Ono since the start of the year, what with bed-ins and trying to find somewhere to get married and so on. I don't know, at this remove, if anyone was fooled at the time, but I do think it's interesting that, in spite of all the disagreements and tension between the pair, when the inspiration struck, they could knock off something like this in a few hours. However, it was only masking the reality; as the single was released, John and Yoko were in Montreal, holding another bed-in and recording a single of their own, released only a few hours after it was recorded under the name of 'The Plastic Ono Band'. Oddly, and possibly contractually, it is credited to 'Lennon - McCartney', but it's a Lennon solo record:
Sessions for the new album started up without Lennon, who was on holiday (and was involved in a car crash) in the north of Scotland; when he rejoined, it seemed as though perhaps some things had got back to normal - recording and writing continued for the rest of the summer, with Lennon involved as much as the others, in spite of his also planning what exactly the Plastic Ono Band was going to be. During the sessions, Lennon had presented the song 'Cold Turkey' to the rest of the band, but they turned it down. As the sessions came to an end, Lennon was invited to play the Toronto Rock Festival as the Plastic Ono Band. Organising this, together with plans to record 'Cold Turkey' seem to have finally made Lennon's mind up. Less than a week before 'Abbey Road' was released, he told the other three that he was done; no longer a Beatle.
There was an agreement not to make the news public while it could hurt album sales, and there may have been some half-hearted attempts to either woo Lennon back, or to somehow work without him, but there's little doubt that all four of them knew it was over. There was another album's worth of material from the 'Get Back' sessions in the can, and that would allow everyone to carry on, pretending that nothing was wrong, but in reality, 'Abbey Road' stands as the Beatles final statement.
And, as you'd hope and perhaps expect, it's a terrific statement; another attempt at what a rock album could be with almost an entire side devoted to something not heard before - a deliberate medley of songs, running the music together rather than just eliminating the gaps between tracks. You can read it as not having enough material to finish any of the songs, but I don't believe that's what's happening here - I'm sure that it's deliberately constructed, almost to demonstrate that even in extremis, this is a band still so full of musical ideas that they can't fit them all on the album. Of course, Lennon's original plan was for a side of his songs and a side of Paul's. I like to imagine George Harrison sat at the back of the room coughing loudly when that suggestion was made…
Because, let's be honest, the second and third best songs on 'Abbey Road' are George songs. I'm going to deal with them first, so I don't run the risk of overlooking them as I dribble on about the best one. and the way it all ends. Both 'Here Comes the Sun' and 'Something' are exquisite masterpieces of songwriting; both appear as effortless as the best Lennon or McCartney songs, and both stand as evidence of just how good Harrison was becoming as a writer, as well as fitting perfectly into the late Beatles sound. If I had to pick, I think 'Something' shades it for the glorious guitar tone in the solos, and for the way it takes a lyric which could have rattled along on something raucous from the early albums and adds it to a musical invocation of lazy summer afternoons.
I'm going to quickly confess to liking 'Maxwell's Silver Hammer' (well, someone has to) - I think it's a fascinating development of McCartney's parody songs; it works on its own terms, and it's a tremendously catchy melody as well as a lyric which can cause your kids to ask you just what you're listening to - well, it did mine.
All through the album there are not only new and interesting sounds (it's not just me who notices that 'Polythene Pam' basically invents the sound of punk, and 'I Want You (She's so Heavy)' invents the kind of progressive rock which the likes of King Crimson were trying to get to grips with, is it?) but also echoes of everything which has come before it, from Paul's destruction of his voice in 'Oh! Darling' in the manner of John's treatment of 'Twist and Shout'; Ringo's return to the world of the Yellow Submarine, to the odd sounds and intricate triple-tracked harmonies on 'Because' echoing the intricacies of 'Sergeant Pepper'. There are nods to Led Zeppelin and Fleetwood Mac along the way, but what makes 'Abbey Road' stand alone as an album for me is the fact that it ends the way it does.
The medley is, as I said earlier, a deliberate attempt to do something different with a rock album, and I think it reaches heights which the Beatles don't match anywhere else. I know that's an odd thing to say, but I'll try to explain.
First of all, 'You Never Give me your Money' sets out the stall for what's to come - the main theme which we'll be coming back to coupled with pace and style changes hinting at what's about to happen. There's a quick Robert Plant-style vocal followed by some Peter Green chords as we slide into 'Sun King' featuring the lush harmonies which would serve 10cc so well in the next few years. From the laid-back gibberish at the end of 'Sun King', we travel back to 'Rubber Soul'-era songwriting from John, prefiguring Pam from the next song, then jumping seven years or so into the future as we hear about her punk uniform which could have come straight out of Sex on the King's Road in 1976. Is it Pam who came in through the bathroom window? It doesn't matter, because the sound is right up to date now, and it's time to sign off properly.
There has to be a pause before 'Golden Slumbers' because you have to hear the last three songs as a single piece; a final summation of all these four have learned over the last seven years and giving them each a turn in the spotlight as they bid us farewell. First Paul's extraordinarily gorgeous 'Golden Slumbers', easily the best track on here, and a simple summary of what's happening - the last year has been Paul's attempt to get them back to the way they were, but now he accepts it's not going to happen: once, there was a way…. It's been a lot of fun, we've all had a blast, but all good things must come to an end, and we're ready to put down our instruments now and let all this drift off into history. Then there's a fairly blunt realisation that you can't just put something like being in the Beatles to one side;there will be no lullabies for anyone involved - the word 'Beatles' will appear in the first line of all of their obituaries, and everything they do from now on will be compared to what they did when they were together. They're going to be carrying that weight with them for the rest of their lives. The current turmoil which inspired 'You Never Give me Your Money' resurrects the main theme and reminds us that it hasn't all been sunshine and roses, but in the end…
In the end, these are just four kids who formed a band to see what might happen. It didn't perhaps turn out the way they might have dreamed it, but who the hell has dreams like that? As the needle heads toward the centre of the record for the last time, each of them takes a turn to say goodbye; first Ringo on the drums, and then each of the others soloing in their own style, jamming their way through the last thing they would ever all record together, until the piano cuts them off and reminds them that there's one more thing to say.
Few bands get to say goodbye on their own terms; even fewer manage to sum up everything they stood for in a run of songs which have so much packed in to them, and can top it with a simple couplet which echoes down the decades. The Beatles did, but then The Beatles were on a different plane from all the other bands.
Then, as if to prefigure the fact that nothing ends quite the way you planned, we get 'Her Majesty', left on by mistake, just to demonstrate that there may be perfect endings, but there's always some music left over which someone's going to stick out and just ever so slightly take the shine off. In truth, it's a 9.5, but I'm rounding to 10 because if you've been following the story, and you've been listening closely, that final five-and-a-bit minutes should leave you uplifted and heartbroken all at once. What a gift, to live in a world with Beatles music in it.
'Yellow Submarine' came out only two months after its predecessor. Not much time for anything important to have happened in the meantime, which is why I slightly fudged the timeline last post. Right around the release of 'The BEATLES' (I'm stuck with it now) a number of significant events further pried the band apart. George Harrison's soundtrack to the 'Wonderwall' album came out three weeks prior to the band's album; Linda Eastman moved in with Paul; Yoko Ono suffered a miscarriage (the day before 'The BEATLES' was released); John and Yoko released their first album of "unfinished music", better known as 'Two Virgins', and it's getting a paragraph all to itself.
'Unfinished Music, vol.1: Two Virgins' is Lennon and Ono's preparatory sketch for Revolution 9 stretched over two sides of an LP. Notorious as much for its cover as it is for its self-indulgent racket, it features tape loops, found noises, snippets of actual music and both artists talking mostly gibberish throughout. It's purported to be essentially a recording of the first night they spent together, and was released - not on any mainstream label - to howls of outrage from people who objected to the photograph of the pair of them in the bare scud on the cover. It didn't sell particularly well, and its hardly surprising, but it was the clearest possible indication that Lennon was ready to move on.
In the meantime, United Artists wanted another Beatles film, and the band had no interest in making one. Therefore the logical solution was to make an animated feature with voice actors doing their best impressions of the boys. You can look up the 'Coronation Street' connection for yourselves. The only things UA insisted upon were four new songs - the contractual minimum required - and at least one scene of live action. The band were initially enormously reluctant, understandably so if you've ever seen the appalling TV cartoons. However, 'Yellow Submarine' turned out to be much better than anticipated, and in the end they all participated willingly, even taking part in some of the promotional activities surrounding the release.
If you've never seen the film, do yourself a favour and seek it out. It's of course a product of its time - in fact, given the pace at which the Sixties was evolving, it was if anything a little behind the times when it came out in the middle of 1968 - the message of universal peace and love overcoming the forces of oppression and greed was a little harder to take when seen through a haze of teargas. What it is, however, is a masterpiece of animation and of blending the surreal, psychedelic, colour saturated visuals with the music. It's at once trippy and childlike, and was a clear influence on several generations of animators to follow - it does the Terry GIlliam thing just around the time the Gilliam himself was starting to play with the same ideas. The trailer gives an idea of what's on offer:
If the film is a masterpiece, the same cannot be said for the soundtrack album. Released a matter of weeks after 'The BEATLES', it was done in the style of the earlier US film soundtracks, with the second side taken up with George Martin's orchestral doodlings and incidental music. Even the first side leaves us a little short-changed, with only four of the six songs on offer being new, and - let's face it - none of them in the top rank of Beatles songs. Well, OK, maybe one of them…
'Only a Northern Song' features George whining - justifiably, to be fair - about being effectively a hired hand in the songwriting stakes, and does not stick around in the memory for long, although as a fan of Hammond organ in rock music I do love the opening. 'Hey Bulldog', contrary to the spirit of the rest of the album, is an absolute corker of a song - the video is worth a watch for the sense of a band, even in the grip of their various animosities, unable to resist the joy of a proper rock song:
'It's All Too Much' is only a little less dreary than Harrison's other offering, is way too long, and we've heard this all before. But it's still better than 'All Together Now', which should really only be experienced in the context of the film, as otherwise you're forced to accept that McCartney farted out the simplest lyrical and melodic line he could think of, repeated it for two minutes, shrugged and said "that'll do".
Side two is pretty bland in truth - all early 20th century romanticism, with snippets of Handel and Bach along with the merest hints of Beatles melodies here and there. Like all but the very best film scores, it makes no sense shorn of the visuals and is basically just a money-making exercise.
I'm struggling here, can you tell?
All in all, this is an awful rip-off of an album; save your money and buy the restored DVD of the film (or even, if you really need a copy of 'Hey Bulldog', the 'Yellow Submarine Songtrack' which came out a few years back - it contains all the music with the exception of 'A Day in the Life' and Martin's burblings)
1968 started with The Beatles in an unfamiliar place - the reaction to the TV broadcast of 'Magical Mystery Tour' shook them, and the business interests they had so confidently agreed to take on were threatening to overwhelm everything. Shortly before Brian Epstein's death, the commercial operations of the group and all the associated activities had been consolidated into an overarching organisation called Apple Corps, which turned out to be for the most part a better pun than it was a going concern. None of the four of them had any experience of, or much interest in, running a business - various businesses, to be more accurate - and all sorts of strange and unsustainable things were already being done in the name of Apple. The most visible parts of Apple were the record label, which eventually outlasted the band, mainly because EMI kept pretty much full control over the Beatles releases, and the boutiques, which created an enormous publicity storm, but made no money and were closed within a matter of months.
Being jointly responsible for Apple and its neverending roll call of staff and hangers-on didn't suit the band, who were only really comfortable making music in the studio, and the lack of care and attention soon showed in the way Apple was running, with Magic Alex heading up an entire electronics division which produced nothing beyond an initially unusable studio in the office basement. Meanwhile, out in the real world, the flower power generation were quickly becoming the restive generation of revolutionaries as the ideal world promised by 'All You Need is Love' turned out to be a little less obtainable than that - the early months of 1968 turned the Vietnam War from a far-away sideshow into the most pressing concern of an entire generation as it became clear the it was unwinnable and more and more US teenage boys were being drafted to go and do no more than save face in a struggle few understood and even fewer bought in to.
The Beatles retreated, first into the studio where a few tracks were laid down, including at least one which would not see a release on a Beatles album until 1970 ('Across the Universe', which was given away to the World Wildlife Fund at the suggestion of Spike Milligan) and then to India, where perhaps the most famous Beatles jaunt of them all saw them seclude themselves in the Maharishi's ashram where they were to spend three months qualifying as meditation gurus. It was, of course, not as simple as that, as various family members, Apple employees and assorted hangers-on joined the party, and the ensuing media circus meant that very little actual meditating took place. Instead, free - for the most part - from the pressures of the outside world, the last, and possibly greatest, burst of sustained songwriting in the band's career took place, all pretty much out of sight of the great guru, who presumably thought they were all learning to live on a higher spiritual plane.
Or was trousering the cash left, right and centre while attending to the less spiritual needs with any number of young women who had come along for the ride - depending on who you believe.
In the band's absence, the last single on the EMI / Parlophone label came out back home - 'Lady Madonna':
Incidentally, if you're thinking that the visuals don't match the audio, that's because they're actually playing 'Hey Bulldog', which we'll get back to in a post or two.
'Lady Madonna' was as clear a signal as you could have that the psychedelic phase was pretty much over - it's an irresistible bit of old-fashioned R&B, complete with 'woo's, although the B side 'The Inner Light' is another of Harrison's sitar-heavy ragas. George had already spent time in India at the start of 1968 as he put together the soundtrack for the film 'Wonderwall'. Again, I'll be coming back to that.
Ringo lasted about three weeks in India, and Paul followed him home about three weeks later. John and George eventually returned as well, none of them having done enough meditating to qualify as 'gurus', but each with apparently an entire suitcase full of songs; easily enough for a new album or two. As soon as they returned, however, they all to a greater or lesser extent became embroiled in Apple Corps business, dealing with everything from disgruntled neighbours to board meetings held on board ship sailing round the Statue of Liberty. Another shop, called Apple Tailoring, opened on the Kings Road - it didn't last long, either.
By the end of May, there was nothing else for it but to go back to Abbey Road and make a record. Almost from the first day, there was a palpable change in the atmosphere. The popular story is that because John and Yoko were inseparable at this point, having been together only for a matter of weeks, it was Yoko's presence in the studio which upset the others. The truth is, of course, way more complex than that - each of the songwriters in the band now had a clear idea of the various directions they felt the band should be going next, and they all - even Ringo - had material ready to be worked on, but no consensus on what any of it should sound like. The tensions around Ono's presence were a catalyst for the disagreements to become proper 'musical differences' and the long, painful gestation of the next album wasn't helped by the fact that the two principal songwriters were not always prepared to work on each other's songs, and less inclined to be polite or forgiving about it.
By the end of the sessions for the album, all four of them had appeared on a track which none of the other three played on, and a number of songs featured only three or two of them playing. To add to the general level of disharmony over the six months it took to whip the thing into shape, Geoff Emerick walked out late on, and even George Martin went off on holiday unnanounced in the middle of recording. All was not well on the good ship Beatles, and things were not helped by Paul's engagement to Jane Asher ending messily, and John's divorce from Cynthia.
And yet, in the middle of it all, at the end of July, a handful of top photographers spent the day with the band on what became known as the 'Mad Day Out' - all four of them seeming to enjoy a day in each other's company, stopping traffic and combining for some memorable photographs - the official story is here, but seek out some of the other photos taken that day; they genuinely don't look like a band in turmoil.
And they didn't sound like one, either, if the next single was any indication. Written by McCartney for Lennon's son Julian as the bitterness of the divorce started to affect him, 'Hey Jude' - the first official Apple release - surely stands out even among the staggering output of these four as one of the most instantly recogniseable and infectious songs of all time. Admit it, even if you're tired of it, or find it corny and worn out, you're singing along by the end, aren't you:
That clip might be my favourite of all of these - from David Frost trying not to look too pissed off at the beginning, via McCartney's casual improvised subvocalisation before he starts, to the chaos at the end as all these people find themselves pressed up against the Actual Beatles, singing along to a song they've never heard before. Lennon and McCartney exchange a few knowing looks, and you can read all sorts into those, especially given Lennon's later belief that it's a song as much about him as it is his son.
The B side of 'Hey Jude' is worth a mention, too, as it's one of three versions of 'Revolution' which came out of the recording sessions - this one has no number, and is the sped-up, distorted version which Lennon wanted as a single release:
Meanwhile, as things dragged on and on and became less and less harmonious, Ringo became the first Beatle to actually properly quit the band. It took nearly two weeks to convince him to come back, although recording didn't stop in his absence, and McCartney plays drums on the released version of 'Dear Prudence'. Ultimately, only about half the tracks on the finished album feature all four of them, end even then , not all of them were recorded with all of them playing together.
So, recording was chaotic; there are 30 tracks on the album, all pulling in different directions, and there may not actually be a functioning band by the time it's released. It's a disaster, isn't it?
It isn't. In truth, 'The BEATLES' (yeah, I went there) is a fucking miracle. It's a huge, sprawling beast of a thing, fully three times the length of their first album, and crammed from first track to last with more musical ideas than most bands manage in an entire career. Sure, it feels like there's no coherent message; of course it sounds in places like there are at least two full solo albums chopped up and mixed in, and it does feature the only Beatles track which doesn't appear to have any actual music on it (I'm coming back to that, too), but it just bloody works. You could even argue that the two best songs from it were left off and released as singles, yet I'm struggling to see what you would lose to include them, because there's nothing here which is filler; nothing which isn't the product of genuine geniuses at work. And, as I've said before, they don't have to be working together to make great music- the mere fact that all these songs have to have everyone's name on them means that you don't bring in your second-best songs and hope to get away with them; you bring your A game. Every time.
And, yes, before you explode, there definitely are songs on here which don't work, but I'd suggest that doesn't make them filler; every single track on here, even the snippets of McCartney trying things out like 'Wild Honey Pie' or 'Why Don't We Do It in the Road?' (sheesh, that's a hard one to capitalise) are properly thought-out and crafted. They don't really go anywhere because there's no longer a band structure able to give them shape beyond the initial idea, but they're definitely not throwaways; they're a big part of what makes this album work in all its ramshackle glory. Since Lennon's death, there has been a certain amount of received wisdom that McCartney's tracks on here are weaker; this is in big part down to the interview John gave to Playboy just before he died, in which he gleefully went through the entire Beatles songbook, pointing out which songs had nothing to do with him and were therefore rubbish. But 'Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da' was a huge hit, albeit for another band; 'Blackbird' and 'Mother Nature's Son' are stone cold classics - John Lennon, even more than a decade on, still bore grudges, and we're allowed to make our own minds up about this stuff.
Beatles albums had always featured guest musicians - George Martin has a playing credit on 'Please Please Me' - but the full roll-call of musicians on here is indicative of the loose way it was all put together; Harrison gets Eric Clapton in, Yoko Ono gets a solo vocal line; even the Mike Sammes Singers feature prominently. It all adds up to an album which would, in any other hands, be all over the place, but just about fits together, producing surprise after surprise as it meanders through a band in turmoil without any really obvious signs of the discord reaching the majority of listeners.
It starts, of course, with the two tracks Ringo missed during his self-imposed exile, which has the unexpected effect of allowing it to start with two of the most well-known and loved tracks, then somehow kicking properly into gear when Ringo stomps us into 'Glass Onion'. Side 1 may sag a little in the middle, but not by much - you're either listening to one of the great Sixties pop songs, or marvelling at Lennon's vitriolic takedown of rich Americans who hunt tigers. Then the side concludes with George Harrison's first properly timeless classic and what is perhaps the strongest song on the whole thing. 'Happiness is a Warm Gun' is easily dismissed, but it's in truth a complex and ever-shifting marvel of songwriting, with Ringo conducting us strictly through the shifting time signatures by just driving on in 4/4 time, forcing the song to fit itself around him.
Side 2 is full of songs too easily dismissed, but each of them (yes, even that one) has a level of craft and love which surpasses pretty much anything else out there at the time - 'Blackbird' is the obvious standout, but I find things to enjoy in all of them; Ringo's first proper song with its retro feel and wild violin; 'Piggies' showing George could be just as angry as John; the bassline on the otherwise unremarkable 'Why Don't We Do It in the Road?'. Even 'Rocky Racoon' is a genuine attempt at yet another style - it may not linger in the mind, but it's full of interesting ideas. Once again, it ends with a glorious double-header: the effortless genius of 'I Will' and Lennon's genuine and heartfelt song for his lost mother.
Side 3 kicks off by getting properly back to basics - the whole band demonstrating how the battle-scarred and world-weary 1968 Beatles would treat a simple 1950s rock and roll song - it swerves between trying to sound like early Beatles and the amplified and distorted blues which was apparently taking over the world, and slides inevitably into 'Yer Blues' which wouldn't have sounded out of place on a John Mayall or even Led Zeppelin album. The rest of side 3 hinges very much on what you make of 'Helter Skelter', a song which has long had a life of its own. For me, it sits perfectly well between Lennon's raucous songs and McCartney and Harrison's more lyrical efforts. It certainly sounds like it had been recorded by a band which was pretty much unrecognisable from the one which recorded 'Sergeant Pepper' the year before, never mind the happy optimists of 'She Loves You'. It may not have "invented heavy metal", but it sure as hell contributed. Again, the side ends strongly, but it doesn't really prepare you for what's to come.
Side 4 is, of course, the side people will tend to skip - I'm not sure how many people make it all the way to 'Good Night' every time they listen. It all starts with the second of the 'Revolution' songs - 'Revolution 1' is simply an alternative take on the single version, with the drive and distortion missing. Then we're in the full vaudeville / music hall swing with 'Honey Pie', which only works because it is played straight; it's no parody. Then George takes us round the chocolate box while sounding about as modern as you can get. Either side of the "song" I'll be coming back to, Lennon shows us two sides of his personality; playing with some of the elements of his more psychedelic period, and giving Ringo a straightforward lullaby which George Martin and the Mike Sammes Singers transform into something timeless and traditional; the first time you hear it, you imagine you've known it all your life.
All of which ignores the actual reason people just switch off early. 'Revolution 9' is way, way beyond anything they had tried before - all the studio trickery which had illuminated everything since 'Revolver' was loaded into eight minutes of avant-garde - well, avant-garde what, exactly? It's too easy to write it off as self-indulgence; this kind of thing was a genuine musical movement at the time; McCartney and Lennon were both fascinated by what Karlheinz Stockhausen was doing in the name of classical music, and there is structure here; there is some kind of plot to it. It's avant-garde classical music in its better parts, and random noise in others. It's also something of a portrait of a world in turmoil; when everything is breaking down, perhaps this weird, distorted soundscape is the only appropriate response. There are also elements of such contemporary fashions as primal scream therapy, and the clearest indication - for those who were still listening - that Yoko Ono is now an enormous influence on everything which is happening. Heard in isolation, it perhaps makes more sense as a reaction to the music being made in the rarefied classical world, but I will say this - even after all these years, the simple cross-fade into 'Good Night' retains an unexpected emotional punch, as you stop having to concentrate and think, and just let the strings wash over you. I recommend not skipping 'Revolution 9', but I understand if you do.
Anyway, the bottom line is that this is a wild, sprawling, patchy, weird, eclectic and almost uncategoriseable album, and it sounds as urgent and modern now as it did fifty years ago. If 'Revolver' is the best Beatles album and 'Sergeant Pepper' is the most accomplished, 'The BEATLES' is probably the most influential, absorbing, maddening and freaky collage of disjointed sounds and attempts to wind each other up a band has ever committed to tape.
And it's brilliant.
In spite of - perhaps because of - all its flaws.
I started this, then changed my mind. Doing the US album throws the timeline off, so you're getting the EPs instead…
Just because 'Sergeant Pepper' was finished didn't mean anyone was taking a break - recording just carried on: Paul had an idea for a film, and there was an intriguing invitation to take part in the first ever global TV broadcast. A song would be needed for that, alongside the three or four already under way for the vague film project. The decision was taken to make the TV song as simple and easy to understand as possible for a wide audience who didn't speak English, and just over three weeks after 'Sergeant Pepper' appeared, the Beatles were on everyone's TV again with another new song. Sadly, there's no easily available video of the live performance, which featured a cast of thousands in the studio and the band singing along to a backing tape, but the single is available:
As is its equally psychedelic B side 'Baby You're a Rich Man':
Just a pause to observe that when Lennon sings 'She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah' in the fade out, it genuinely feels like he's covering a classic from a different era of songwriting.
The actual summer part of the Summer of Love was actually fairly quiet, if you ignore Ringo becoming a father again. It wasn't until the end of August that band activities started up again, with a trip to North Wales (presumably at George's prompting) to commune with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. At this point, all four of them are open to the Maharishi's philosophies, and a quintessentially late sixties week was planned. However, no sooner had they got there that word arrived of the death of Brian Epstein. Epstein hasn't featured all that much in my recountings; he was most definitely not a creature of the studio, but he did pretty much everything else for the Beatles, promoted and defended them with a quiet ferocity, and was absolutely instrumental in getting them to where they were. The band reacted as if one of them had passed, and the entire organisation went into first mourning, then denial - meeting at Paul's house to agree that they would look after their own interests from now on. Perhaps no-one could have replaced Epstein, and perhaps the band were already unravelling, but it definitely didn't help that there was no-one giving direction.
They plunged back into recording, having decided that the best way to cope was to focus on getting this film made. Writing and recording happened quickly, as did filming, which was done more or less live while they trundled around in a bus, causing traffic chaos wherever they went. Just as in life, the film seemed to have no-one in overall charge and while the chaos produced some extraordinary music, the visuals could probably have done with some more work.
There was product to sell, and Christmas was approaching fast, so 'Hello, Goodbye' was released at the end of November, backed by one of the 'Magical Mystery Tour' songs, 'I Am the Walrus':
The video (sorry, 'promotional film') was shot on 35mm film, and directed by Paul, and it not only looks as sharp as if it had been made last week, it features the four of them just being a band on stage - perhaps already prefiguring the more 'back to basics' route the music would take once they were done with the whole psychedelic thing.
And it really was nearly over - even choosing to relegate 'I am the Walrus' to the B side of the single suggested that the sound was moving on again, or perhaps someone pointed out that they were going to release 'Walrus' again in about three weeks. The six songs from the film all came out on a double EP at the beginning of December - it's a lavishly put together thing, with a full colour booklet examining the film (as yet unseen, of course), and a tracklist which led with 'Magical Mystery Tour'. In the US, the six film songs appear (in a different order) on Side 1 of the album version, and the five recent single tracks were collated on to side 2 - the result is an album which no-one in the band had ever intended, but which, mainly due to the presence of some of their best-known songs, almost feels like Sergeant Pepper II.
In the UK, you were restricted to the four sides of EP, which must have been a right faff to listen to: 'Magical Mystery Tour' and Paul's latest pastiche 'Your Mother Should Know' on side 1; 'I am the Walrus' on side 2; 'The Fool on the Hill' and 'Flying' on side 3, and 'Blue Jay Way' rounding things off. In that format, I'm not sure you ever quite get to grips with the structure of the songs - Lennon's wild and unrestrained celebration of acid trips and Alice in Wonderland should segue seamlessly into McCartney's thoughtful and lyrical view of the fool; instead, you had to get up and change the record. I'm still fascinated by 'Flying' - I think it's the only Beatles instrumental, and you can clearly hear where Pink Floyd came from in it, but I'm afraid that 'Blue Jay Way' lacks the variety we've come to expect from experimental Beatles songs - it's a pretty banal lyric, and listening to it without narcotics drags a bit. With the right drugs, of course, it's probably among the most meaningful and subversive songs of all "Wow, man - don't belong. Far out…"
The album version wasn't officially available in the UK until 1976, and didn't crack the top 30 in what was a whole different musical landscape. It is, however, considered part of the official Beatles album catalogue now, making the re-release of these songs much easier than having to recreate a six-track EP. For me, the EP would get an 8; if the album had been an original UK release, I think it would get 9, but as it is, I'm not counting it, so I'm scoring the EP - it's iconic and all, but the title track feels rushed, and both 'Your Mother Should know' and 'Blue Jay Way' sound like solo tracks rather than band efforts. Are the cracks beginning to show already?
The film premiered on the BBC on Boxing Day, and was met with huge audiences, but a resounding critical raspberry. There was, by and large, no issue with the songs, but the film itself appeared messy, unfocused and just plain silly. There's no particular story to it beyond this vague idea that a traditional mystery tour (they were very popular in the days before everyone jetted off to Spain on holiday) would be more mysterious and more entertaining if presented by the Beatles. Mostly, though, it wasn't. The lack of script allied to the general eccentricity of Ivor Cutler as the bus conductor left a lot of people scratching their heads. It did, however, introduce the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band to a wider audience (the name of the song they contribute to the soundtrack? 'Death Cab for Cutie'). I haven't seen it in a while, but I'm sure that its flaws have been softened a little by the passage of time. It was a suitably weird and wonderful way to see out the most cacophonous of years. 1968 would be a whole different beast…
As soon as 'Revolver' came out, the band headed back to the US for another attempt at making stadium-sizes gigs work. It was not what you might call a success. The new songs didn't make the set list because none of them was really suited to stage performance; the welcome in the wake of the album-burning parties was not what it had been before (Lennon's sort-of apology appeared to mollify enough people for the tour to go on); and in spite of improvements in amplification, no-one - especially those on stage - could hear a note of what was being played. The band in any case were not particularly interested in these old songs any more, and the climax of the tour in San Francisco was greeted with a collective heartfelt sigh of relief, all four of them having - some more reluctantly than others - come to the conclusion that performing live was simply not possible any longer. The Beatles had existed solely as a live band for years, but once they had begun to get to grips with what recording technology could do for them, they moved on from that phase of their life with few regrets.
Eventually, I suppose, the screaming would have died down. Eventually, the technology would catch up with what a Beatles concert might have been. But by the time that had happened, the forces holding these four together had been overwhelmed by events and the passage of time. One of the things which perhaps gets overlooked when people talk about the second half of the Beatles' career is that the end of touring was a psychological end to the band itself. From that point on none of them was really in The Beatles any more - they would get together and make music under the Beatles name from time to time, but without the tight bonds imposed by relentless travelling and performing together, they were able to go off and live their own lives, and that process started almost immediately.
On their return from the US, they went their separate ways for an unimaginable three months. George (who may or may not have been on the verge of quitting at this point) went to India and properly learned the sitar; Paul went off to Kenya; Ringo went home and introduced himself to his family, and John, having spent some time making the film 'How I Won The War', went to an art gallery one evening and met the Japanese artist Yoko Ono…
Just before going in to the studio to more or less see what happened, Paul McCartney died, which must have been a blow.
As a measure of how much things had changed since the 'Rubber Soul' sessions, there was no pressure for an album by Christmas, and for the first time (it's not clear to me exactly when this happened) an insistence that Capitol in the US would release whatever came out of these sessions in its entirety. The days of wildly varying releases on either side of the Atlantic were (almost) over, and with many of the external pressures removed, the band were able to retreat into Abbey Road and take as long as they needed to record something new.
The 'taking as long as it took' part did, of course, cause some problems, as by February 1967, EMI were getting very twitchy indeed about the lack of new material. To appease them, and perhaps aware of the fact that even a Beatles audience would eventually move on to something else, the band agreed to releasing two tracks from the new sessions as a double A side single.
Let me rephrase that: The Beatles decided to release what is surely the greatest 7" single ever committed to vinyl, 'Strawberry Fields Forever' / 'Penny Lane':
(Incidentally, I think you can tell a lot about a person by which side they play first)
Notwithstanding the changes in sound evident on 'Revolver', these two songs mark an absolute shift in what 'The Beatles' actually is: gone is the clean-cut image still visible during the last tour, in its place are four grown-ups with facial hair and serious expressions - almost an entirely new band, and the music reflects and amplifies this change. Both songs are masterpieces not just of songwriting, but of production and execution. In keeping with the thesis that The Beatles isn't really a band any more, there is so much going on in both tracks that you simply can't picture the four of them standing together in a room bashing out either song. The end of the video (sorry; "promotional film") for 'Penny Lane' makes this point eloquently as they ride their horses past their old stage setup.
If you don't agree that it's the greatest 7" single of all time, surely you'll concede that it's the greatest 7" single ever to be kept off the no. 1 spot by Englebert Humperdinck. It also helped build the expectation for the next album to heights which surely no album could possibly hope to meet. 'Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band' didn't emerge until June, and was released into a world which had moved on even from the apparent extremes of 1966 - there was a genuine shift in public attitudes to just about everything you can think of - long hair, mini skirts, women's lib, flower power, hippies, the summer of love - all the things you've read about really did happen, and then the Beatles provided the soundtrack. No wonder it's so revered…
And no wonder it became so divisive. It's far more common for a neglected album to have gradually achieved classic status than it is for something so widely, almost universally, lauded on release to suffer a retrospective backlash; but that's what slowly happened to 'Sergeant Pepper'. Ten years after its release, when I was buying any and every new album I could lay my hands on, the received wisdom about the Beatles was that the only version of the band worth bothering about was the one Stuart Sutcliffe had been in; the early songs were fine, but everything from 1965 onward was - well, we used words like 'pretentious' almost as if we knew what they meant. It took me years to come back to this album, having suffered through all the 'greatest album of all time' lists which inevitably put it first because they had been written by people who were there at the time; people who really understood how seismic it was, and who perhaps didn't view it as objectively as you might hope. If something really did change the way you looked at the world, it's hard to then stand back and admit that, you know, 'Revolver' is actually a better album.
So, in the end, I think that it's more important than it was great; had more significance in so many ways than some of its songs merit, and looms so large over the cultural landscape that it's next to impossible to look at it dispassionately - you're inevitably reduced to 'well, I like it' as the depth of your analysis because it really is impossible to unpick it from all the psychedelia, the cardboard cut-outs and the moustaches.
But I'm going to give it a go.
'Sergeant Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band' is crammed full of some of the most iconic melodies, lyrics and sounds ever committed to vinyl. There's not a dull moment, and never a point where you think 'oh, they've done this before'. Everything about it is new and exciting, and if it has flaws, it's probably in that not every experiment can possibly work perfectly every time.
One of the reasons the songs the Beatles wrote are so strong, so memorable and so successful is that whenever either Lennon or McCartney brought a song in for the band to work on, it had to pass muster in the opinion of one of the greatest writers of popular song who ever lived. It was even harder for George Harrison, who had to get his songs past both of them. For me, that process reached its apogee on 'Revolver', as everyone pulled together with common purpose; here they are all still trying to outdo each other, and the way they do it is no longer restrained by the limitations of guitar, drums and bass, and I'm trying not to be influenced by hindsight here, but I think there are moments from each of them which perhaps would have benefited from one or other of them saying 'Hang on, just because we can, doesn't mean we should'.
You know, I've started this next paragraph six or seven times now, and I'm still not clear what I'm trying to say, or even if it's possible to say it. Trying to evaluate 'Sergeant Pepper' is like trying to describe a rainbow to someone blind from birth - it can be done, but rarely well; you can get into the technical details of how everything works, but you lose the majesty of it all in the intricate details, and in the end, you're not sure if anyone is better off for the effort. If I could, I'd award it pink mouse out of ten, because that's what we're dealing with here - something which just doesn't properly fit into the normal categories. It's a rock album which features ragtime clarinet, fairground organs and calliope, a string octet, an orchestra playing atonally but to a structure, western and Indian classical instruments and musicians, various animal sounds, an alarm clock and a harp - all played by a fictional band.
And through all that chaos, weaving under and over the soundscape are thirteen (well, twelve, as one's a reprise) perfect examples of the songwriter's craft - each unique, each as different from what comes next as it is from what comes after. You may not like ragtime clarinet, or have no time for extended jamming on Indian instruments; you may find 'Mr Kite' twee or (and you're wrong about this) 'Good Morning' insubstantial, but none of that matters, because all of those songs stand in service to a greater whole, an album which fifty years on still defies description. Of course there are weaker spots - not many, but I still contend 'Revolver' had none - but even in its excesses and its whimsy, 'Sergeant Pepper' is still pushing at boundaries which no-one even knew existed.
And, yes, you do have to talk about the songs eventually. Let's get the contentious ones out of the way first: 'Within You, Without You' is, to my mind, the beating heart of the album. You can enjoy the whole thing while still thinking it's too long, but most of the times I listen to it I find myself drawn in to it, partly by the words, which sum up what it was to be young in the summer of 1967 like nothing else. 'When I'm Sixty-Four' is a musical masterpiece, but its also a little whimsical and slight. Nevertheless, it's one of the core Beatles songs which everyone knows and loves, even if it's not cool to admit it. Pretty much everything else just works, and then there are two of the five or six best Beatles songs of all.
'She's Leaving Home' is a miracle. It's so simple yet so harmonically complex, with the voices of the parents and the narrator weaving through a melody which never allows you to get lost in the story. It's a sketch and a movie script all in one, and is easily the best song on here but for the final one. 'A Day in the Life' defies both description and superlatives. Presented after the imaginary band have taken their leave, it seems to say "this is us; this is what we've been doing while all that was going on". From an early age, I knew that you could do anything with music, because I'd heard the Beatles do it in this song - you could mash two different songs together; you could make an orchestra do things which almost didn't sound like music at all; you could make a sound on a piano (three pianos, I later discovered) which somehow never faded; you could say those things and make it all sound mystical and magical, and you could make a pop song last over five minutes and still leave us wanting more.
I like much of the music I like because 'A Day in the Life' taught me that there were no boundaries if you didn't want there to be.
After this, rock albums were around forty minutes long; after this, you printed the lyrics on the sleeve somewhere; after this, you could play what you wanted and express yourself the way you wanted, and people would listen, people would give you record contracts. Great bands were driven on to produce their own masterpieces, and solve the problems of playing in huge arenas; bands devised light shows and costumes, used or even invented entire new musical technologies, grew their hair and lived in communes, and they did it all because 'Sergeant Pepper' showed them how.
Musically, it's a shade behind 'Revolver'; as a significant moment in the history of the music we all take for granted now, it's off the charts.
Oh, and the apostrophe? just like the original album, I've done it both ways. Which is right? A splendid time is guaranteed for all, and that's all that matters.
1966 is widely, and rightly, seen as a pivotal year for the Beatles, and for popular music generally. 'Rubber Soul' had stirred things up, and bands everywhere were rising to the challenge - it's surely no coincidence that the Rolling Stones' 1966 album,'Aftermath' contains, for the first time, only Jagger / Richards songs - which meant that whatever came next was also going to have to be a raising of the bar. It's therefore not so surprising that the period between 'Rubber Soul' coming out in December 1965, and 'Revolver' in August 1966 was mainly taken up with recording sessions rather than globe-spanning tours. Record companies still hadn't quite shaken off the 'singles make money' model, but they had enthusiastically embraced the 'albums make even more money' idea, and the band weren't exactly heartbroken that their main source of income was no longer playing hundreds of concerts a year.
There was a plan to tour Japan and the Philippines in the early summer, but before that, the band were free to explore Abbey Road Studios and figure out just what else they could do with all the toys now at their disposal. Make no mistake, while this was a time of incredible change in songwriting and music-making generally, the technology was keeping pace. 'Please Please Me' had been recorded in mono on two tracks; 'Revolver' had two four-track machines, as well as any number of technical innovations, including the now-ubiquitous, but invented on the spot for this album, ADT, or automatic double tracking. 'Revolver' ensured that popular music would never sound the same again - you could use tape to create sounds no-one had heard before; you could make pianos sound like guitars, and vice versa; you could record a Beatles song on which the only trace of an actual Beatle were the voices. There were new amps and new instruments, and - crucially - a new young recording engineer called Geoff Emerick, who was up for anything the band could throw at him.
Outside, the atmosphere was as fevered as it was in EMI Studio 3. This was the year of Swinging London, of Carnaby Street, Biba and Mary Quant as well as the World Cup and the shift of the working man's sport into the national consciousness. For the first time, the notion of 'celebrity' being something other than the record of Great Men doing Great Deeds took proper hold; until the mid-sixties, pop stars could cause a passing sensation, but otherwise the great and the good were bound up with the doings of the upper classes and royalty - to be a famous fashion designer, you had to have dressed the Queen - that had all changed, and apparently in the blink of an eye. The image of London went from sober businessmen in pinstripes with bowler hats and tightly-furled umbrellas to hip young people with outrageously loud and colourful clothes, wild haircuts, no hats at all, and a Beatles album under their arm. All eyes were on London, and as the artists and musicians came to perform, to see and be seen, the Beatles were right there in the middle of it all - hanging out with Bob Dylan, attending exhibitions and avant-garde plays; taking all the trendy drugs, and using all of it to construct an album unlike anything ever attempted before. Without the pressure of touring, the band gave expansive press interviews, in which they would expound at length on all the philosophical and creative ideas which were going into their music, as well as making the odd comment which would come back to bite them.
Meanwhile, in the US, Capitol records had a bit of a dilemma. Sticking rigidly to their policy that UK albums were just too damn long for the American attention span, they still had a pile of offcuts which had never appeared on an album over there. Oh, and they had 'Yesterday', which had been an enormous hit single, but its absence from 'Help' was beginning to look more and more like a mistake. There needed to be another album to take up the slack, and they called it 'Yesterday And Today'. It was the twelfth Beatles album released since early 1964, and - ignoring all the controversy about the cover, which I'm coming to - it's a decent compilation covering everything from 'Help!' to 'Revolver'. If by some mad chance you ever get a chance to grab a copy, you should - it's full of cracking songs, including three from the as yet unreleased 'Revolver' which Capitol had already decided weren't going on the US version. This madness is about to stop, but of all the butchered albums released in the first three years of Beatles releases in the US, the one which had the butchered babies cover is the one worth bothering with.
The original cover of 'Yesterday and Today', which can only have been approved by a madman, is indicative of a definite change in how the band wanted to be perceived, and that change in attitude came with attendant risk. Lennon's interview with Maureen Cleave in which he compared the band's popularity to the decline in Christianity sparked outrage and record burning parties when it was published in the US; the cover of 'Yesterday and Today' featuring raw meat and dismembered dolls, was hastily replaced with something more anodyne; even the trip to the far east was not without its problems as the band - deliberately or otherwise - stood up Imelda Marcos and left in a hurry when people started protesting. Being in the Beatles wasn't all sunshine and happy tunes any more - if it had ever been - they were in the spotlight, they didn't want to be seen as the loveable moptops any more, but the new, more grown-up path was trickier to navigate than anyone expected, and - just as they'd appeared to be in control of everything, they discovered that this entity they'd inadvertently created had a life of its own, and there was no reining it in.
Fortunately, there was always the music. Prior to 'Revolver' coming out, there was the now customary advance single: 'Paperback Writer':
'Paperback Writer' and its fantastic B side 'Rain' didn't just whet people's appetites for the new album, they surely raised expectation levels to a place they could never hope to exceed. Yet, we're dealing not just with The Beatles, but with 1966 Beatles. 'Revolver' isn't just better than you'd hope from the single, it's so much better that it's on another planet.
In 1966, the Beatles reached a rarefied place where none had gone before, and made music so indelible that the only way I can describe it is like this:
With many albums, there's a run of songs which just works - the first three tracks, or that run from the middle of side one to about ten minutes into side two, or the last couple of tracks which just make you want to listen to them over and over again. 'Revolver' has a run like that. It lasts from the false count-in at the start of 'Taxman' to the final fading looped note of 'Tomorrow Never Knows'. Words really aren't adequate to describe 'Revolver' - it exists as an experience; a place in time and space all its own. You wouldn't change a note, even of the songs which might not work on their own, because to do so would upset the delicate, intricate balance of what it surely one of the very, very few perfectly realised records.
What struck me listening to it in preparation for doing this is the sheer overwhelming strength of the melodies. Of the 14 songs on here, roughly 14 of them have standout, still singing them fifty years on, melodies. You might be lost in the wonder of Eleanor Rigby, only to glance at the track list and realise that the incredible tune which is 'I'm Only Sleeping' is up next. Every song is like that; almost all of them scurry out of the way at the end, ushering in something equally amazing - there's not a wasted minute; not a track on here which you could improve. Perhaps the greatest compliment I can pay it is that, after having listened to it for most of my life, I can still find new things in it, I can still catch myself laughing out loud at the sheer joyful audacity of it, and I can listen to and think about the way 'For No One' works and how it compares and contrasts to 'Here, There and Everywhere' and be caught up in my own contemplation right up until the moment when that French Horn breaks into my reverie and the hairs on my arms are standing to attention. Only genuinely great music can do that.
There's so much to say about all of it that I could easily write a post on each track, but let me instead point you to someone who really knows what he's talking about. You should watch the entire thing, but I've (at least I hope I have) cued this up to the part where Howard Goodall talks about 'Eleanor Rigby' and tries to explain how the tunesmiths responsible for 'Love Me Do' only four years before created one of the timeless classics with no formal training; just a natural instinct for what would work.
There will be individual songs to come better than some of the individual songs on here; there will be long stretches of Beatles albums which perhaps reach heights loftier than 'Revolver' does, but there won't be anything which is consistently, unarguably better than all of it. If you have the opportunity to demonstrate to someone - as I did with my children - what was so special about the Beatles, you could of course plough through all the singles in order, and they'd get the idea, but if you really want to know the full breadth and depth of this extraordinary band, just sit down with their most extraordinary album.
Almost as soon as the 'Help!' movie hit the theatres of the world, the Beatles set off on what is up there in the top five or ten most iconic tours by a band ever. Personally, I'd put it at number 1, but there will be arguments for the Rolling Thunder Revue and at least one of the Zeppelin tours, and so on. But I need only mention two of the venues on that tour to begin to explain why it's so significant. On August 15th and 16th 1965, The Beatles played Shea Stadium in New York, and on the 29th and 30th, they played the Hollywood Bowl. If you're in this thread, you've seen at least some of the Shea Stadium footage, and it's nuts.
On the first night, there were 56,000 people crammed in, with the band barely visible on a puny-looking riser in front of the pitcher's mound. Even without the screaming masses, the sound was pitiful - no-one had ever considered the logistics of amplifying a band's sound enough so it could be heard in the back row of an outdoor stadium with an audience the size of a mid-sized town all screaming at them. The only way to properly hear what it had sounded like was to tune in to the Ed Sullivan show in September and watch the recording. Sound at the Hollywood Bowl was better, partly because it has a great natural acoustic, and partly because even at the back of that vast auditorium, you're still close enough to be able to identify which Beatle is which. The live album, partly made up of tracks from the 1965 shows, is worth a listen, as is - and I know I'm repeating myself here - the soundtrack to Ron Howard's documentary.
Mercifully, the band - revelling in the level of control they had gradually acquired - chose to spend the rest of the year writing and recording songs rather than playing inaudible concerts in larger and larger venues. The result is not only the 14 songs on 'Rubber Soul', but the double A side single released on the same day, 'We Can Work it Out' and 'Day Tripper':
In some respects, this is the first actual Beatles album. Everything which had gone before was either a mixture of originals and covers at the record company's request, or film soundtracks. In America, the situation was even more dire, with a dozen albums floating around with the band's name on them, but with little or no input from the people who actually made the music. 'Rubber Soul' changes all that. The band (and I'm not being naive here, they were absolutely on a deadline to have something out before Christmas) went in to Abbey Road deliberately to make an album; something few, if any, rock bands had ever done before. Everything about this is on their terms now, from the cover to the running order, to the instrumentation and arrangements. George Martin is a co-conspirator in it all, but he's no longer calling the shots; all four Beatles are in full control now. The result is something which is so obviously epoch-making now that its hard to even imagine how it was received at the time. The genius of it is that there's enough of the old way of doing things left that everything new is coming from a familiar place: the regulation 14 tracks? All present and correct. The publicists blurb and general clutter on the back of the sleeve? Absolutely. Roughly 15 minutes of music on each side? Well, there are a couple of slightly longer songs, but pretty much, yes. It looks like an LP record from 1963 did, but it sounds like the future.
Consider the front cover. The stories about it are well-worn; the elongated image the result of the cardboard it was projected on to falling over, the proto-psychedelic logo the result of nothing more than a graphic designer trying to replicate the shape of the sap of a rubber tree when it is tapped; even the decision to leave the band name off - hugely controversial, of course, but by the end of 1965 you'd have been hard pressed to find any sentient being in the world who couldn't tell you who those four were, even in a distorted image. But the name of the band isn't the only thing missing from the front cover. Gone, too is the near-ubiquitous white bar at the top. This isn't, by a long chalk, the first album not to feature it - even 'Beatles For Sale' hides the white part - but after this, it's impossible to imagine a serious rock album which featured the record company and the band name in a dead space at the top of the cover image, unless it was being done in a knowingly ironic way. 'Rubber Soul' changed the way we bought albums because it was no longer enough to simply flick through the bins without really seeing the whole sleeve; now you had to stop and look at each one individually; you had to pay attention to the design to figure out what you were looking at, and you had to pull the thing out of the stack to flip it over if the name of the band wasn't in a prominent position. It may not have been deliberate, but for the next 20 years, spotty herberts in record shops had a way of looking for new albums, and that happened because 'Rubber Soul' changed how albums worked.
And all this before we hear a note of the music.
Now, in keeping with the previous posts, there should be a mention of what was happening in the record stores of North America. Capitol had filled the gap between 'Help!' and 'Rubber Soul' by releasing six singles at once - essentially, they had reclaimed the rights to all that early stuff which had originally gone out on Vee-Jay, and decided that it was about time they made some money from them. So, just as the band were turning the musical corner, their US record label were turning the clock back. Not content with that, they decided that 'Rubber Soul' just had too many tracks on it, and pulled four of them - including 'Drive My Car' and 'Nowhere Man' - adding 'I've Just Seen a Face' and 'It's Only Love'. The result is an album which millions of people love, but which definitely isn't the one the Beatles had in mind. To be fair, opening with 'I've Just Seen a Face' and 'Norwegian Wood' is effective, but to me it totally misses the point of the original running order.
OK, I can avoid this no longer. It is the first properly essential rock album, and while you could swap the two single tracks in for a couple of the more 'old style Beatles' tracks (and have hours of lively debate trying to agree which two should go), you shouldn't, and here's why:
'Rubber Soul' is a statement; a profound and deliberate statement of intent by a band who have understood just how much power they now hold, and who could have churned out pop songs until even their bank managers were complaining that it was all too much. Instead, they now had the power and the freedom to properly explore just what they were capable of. Several (but not as many as you might think) bands who came after them tried the same trick, only a tiny handful managed to improve as they went on experimenting, and only this one changed the world while they did it. It's a horrible cliche, but everything really did change after this, and it changed two minutes and 37 seconds into side one of 'Rubber Soul' when George Harrison picks up Lennon's guitar melody at the start of 'Norwegian Wood' on an instrument no-one had properly heard before. Today, you've heard it a million times, you know what's coming and you hum along without giving it a second thought. In early December of 1965, you heard that for the first time and if you didn't think 'What the actual fuck is going on?' it's only because you'd lost the power of coherent thought altogether.
So powerful are so many of these songs that it's easy to overlook the handful of less well-known ones - 'You Won't See Me' with it's alternating stress pattern between the lead and harmony vocals; 'The Word' prefiguring the summer of 1967 without anyone noticing; 'What Goes On' featuring a first writing credit for one Richard Starkey ("about five words"), and 'If I Needed Someone' proving that George was as interested in the structures of Indian music as he was in learning how to play the sitar. Yet all the way through the album you are never more than a couple of minutes away from a riff, chorus or lyric which is etched into the cultural consciousness of the entire world: 'Drive My Car' gives us a way in, sounding like a familiar Beatles song although with more going on than before, including the 'beep beep' line which was the Radio 1 traffic jingle when I was a lad. 'Norwegian Wood' is an entire essay all to itself (I'm pausing only to note that once again, everything you knew about this band and popular music has been stood on its ear in a gnat's hair over two minutes); 'Nowhere Man' pulls the curtain aside on Lennon's inner turmoil while entertaining us with a gloriously catchy melody; there's 'Michelle', 'Girl', 'I'm Looking Through You', and then…
If 'Yesterday' is the song which Paul McCartney will be remembered for above all the others, then 'In My Life' ought to be the same for John Lennon. I can't tell you how many times I've listened to it; how often I've hummed along without really thinking about it, and how much more it has meant to me as I've grown older - how someone so young could capture that exact feeling so clearly, so succinctly, is beyond me. Oh, and it's also the track I wheel out whenever I hear the 'Ringo was an average drummer' line - just listen to the way he controls the whole song, just behind the beat when he needs to give Lennon space, and gently encouraging him through the emotional honesty of it all. Can you hear the edits in the sped-up piano interlude? Yes, and I don't care. It's easily in my top five Beatles songs, probably my top two. Genius needs no explanation; no apology.
There will - astoundingly - be better albums to come, but nothing matches this for sheer impact. To be able to reach this level of craft and consistency just three years after blasting through the recording of 'Please Please Me' in a day is almost supernatural. You know how people say The Beatles were the greatest band of all time? This is why.