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.