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)