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.