Thursday, December 31, 2015

In which I risk, at best, ostracism, and, at worst, death when I proclaim: The Beatles were great for about four years. After that the went badly off the boil, not least after three of the four of them began believing their own bullshit

NB At the end of this post are three soundfiles. Just click start to hear any of them. If you are using a Windows machine, they work (on Windows 7) on Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome and Opera. If you are on a Mac, they work on Safari, Chrome and Firefox (and also on some obscure browser I have for some reason installed called Stainless), but they don't work on Opera.

Well, hallelujah (or not). Forget Syria, the EU migration crisis, China building new islands in its latest move to dominate the world, Dame Harriet Harman about to be declared a saint by the RC mafia in the Vatican and Manchester United quite overjoyed that they have finally not lost a match (they were 0-0 against Chelsea, who were also over the Moon that they didn’t lose - who’s to say there isn’t a God in Heaven, eh?).

Yes, forget all that rubbish. Forget even the flooding of most of the North of England, a disaster for folk living there, one only partly ameliorated by the Government’s decision to rent all those affected scuba diving gear and, in keeping with the spirit of the Christmas festive season, postpone any payment for four weeks. No, the Really Big News is that The Beatles - well, the two Beatles who are not yet six foot under, Paul and Ringo - have finally consented to make their ‘oeuvre’ available on iTunes and Spotify. Well! Who says God never listens to our prayers!

I must confess that I was a Beatles fan as a kid and can even remember getting physically excited at the imminent release of their soon to be latest album Revolver (and we still called them ‘LPs’, which were preferably CDs because it was easier to roll a spliff on an LP cover. Try doing that on a CD case.) I didn’t get in a ground level because they hit the big time when I was still living in Berlin and I didn’t get to hear them much. I do once remember hearing She Loves You on BFN (British Forces Radio, the rather paler version of AFN, American Forces Radio), but I can’t say they registered. In fact, I can’t really remember when I got hooked although I was most certainly hooked by the age of 16 when I bought my first Beatles LP (though their sixth) Rubber Soul.

By then the so-called Swinging Sixties was well into its stride, the Beatles were growing hair long (before it had simply been longer, to the disgust of ex-World War II soldiers throughout the land who thought if a short-back-and-sides was good enough for them, it was good enough your you, sonny-me-lad!) I soon had the first five albums though, and great they were too, although the very first did have some weak tracks.

After that came Revolver and, in its time, it did sound different, as even more so did Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band. We played that one to death at school, and I tried to learn some of the chord sequences (and failed). And although the songs were catchy - of course, they were catchy - I didn’t quite warm to them as I had warmed to the short three-minute gems on, particularly, a Hard Day’s Night and Help. Sgt Pepper created a huge hoo-ha and the Beatles were lauded to high heaven, but I suspect it was also the point where they began to take ‘their art’ and, crucially, themselves more seriously, verging on a little too seriously. And that is never a good thing.
Ringo, the drummer, who was always the down-to-earth one, must be cited as the honourable exception. When he was asked on his return from the ashram in India of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (after just ten days. McCartney lasted a month, Lennon and Harrison two months before they, too, sussed him out as just another godwhacker on the make) what it was like, he replied: ‘Just like Butlins’. Ringo calls a spade a spade and has always struck me as having his feet firmly on the ground. He was also a good drummer.

They seem somehow to have lost it when Brian Epstein died. I don’t think Epstein was the greatest or smartest manager, but he was a crucial part of their world until then, one in which they were really just another ‘pop group’, although a hugely successful one. When he killed himself, I think the parts all fell apart. And that was noticeable in their new LP, the so-called White Album. I remember looking forward to that and being distinctly underwhelmed. Distinctly.

One warning should have been that it included 30 tracks, a great many of which were very ordinary indeed. Yet my feelings weren’t those of the mainstream and everyone seemed to join in and reinforce the Beatles belief that they were pretty much the world’s most talented folk and that whatever they turned their hand to was touched with genius. Well, it wasn’t.

Before that had been their Magical Mystery Tour TV programme and its attendant songs, none of which grabbed me, although I didn’t like to admit it to myself for some reason. But then does anyone below the age of 40 relish admitting to himself that his hero or heroes have feet of clay like the rest of us?

Then came the last two LPs, Abbey Road and Let It Be. Again these were played to death, not at school this time but in the flat I shared in Castle Street, Dundee, and, yes, of course, they were catchy, but by now the magic really had gone. I actively began to dislike many of McCarney’s songs, far too many of which I thought and still think were horribly twee. Let It Be - ugh! The Long And Winding Road - ugh! And earlier Fool On The Hill - ugh!

Bearing these in mind, the writing was obviously on the wall with She’s Leaving Home on Sgt Pepper and earlier still I’ll Follow The Sun on Beatles For sale. And ever since heart by almost everything he has since done, Paul McCartney has demonstrated, to me, at least, that he is a twee shite at heart. Lennon last a little longer in my affections, but not much longer. His first solo LP I thought to be nothing but a long whinge of self-indulgent shite, not even redeemed by the one good track, Revolution.

Then came Imagine which I did buy but which underwhelmed me, too, followed by Mind Games. I bought that, too, but I don’t think I played it more than two or three times. And to this day, I want to puke every time I hear Imagine played. Jesus, it’s awful.

I remember being particularly irritated when I caught footage on TV of Lennon playing it in some concert New York concert hall. Lennon was alone on stage, wearing sunglasses and playing a white piano. The camera panned to the audience, which consisted - quite obviously - of the monied and chic of New York, all in their finery and who most certainly wouldn’t give peace a chance if their fucking lives depended on it. As they might say in Scotland: get to fuck John, you big phoney.

Both Lennon and McCartney’s solo output and the reception given to it seem to imply that they were still the musical geniuses from Liverpool and that, including the bullshit about the political activism of the ‘man of peace’ Lennon carries on to this day. Harrison was a half-decent guitar player, but not better than any number of other half-decent guitar players and session men. More to the point he wasn’t a very good songwriter and didn’t have a good voice, although it was useful for some of the harmonies.

Yes, like almost all our one-time heroes, The Beatles did go off the boil, and in retrospect it is rather more obvious to me now than it was then. I mean I did buy the first three Lennon solo albums, although I hardly played them. I didn’t buy any of McCartney’s albums at all. Granted there were still the occasional catchy tunes but . . .

But they really did have their moments and it’s good to remember what was good not what was self-indulgent and mediocre, so here are three songs, coincidentally with Lennon on lead vocals, although all three are very much a group effort and to my mind really do stand the test of time. As for the rest of it, the Sexy Sadies, the Helter-Skelters, the Fool On The Hills and all the rest, leave me out.

The first is No Reply from Beatles For Sale:

No Reply

Then there is I Don’t Want To Spoil The Party from the same album:

I Don’t Want To Spoil The Party

And finally, from a Hard Day’s Night, my favourite from that album of very strong songs, I’ll Be Back:

I’ll Be Back

1 comment:

  1. What a wonderful essay. There are times when our past meshes with our present. In their time, the Beatles were extraordinarily well produced by George Martin and it still shows. Other records are best kept only as gradually fading memories. Too many would fail the ‘Test of Time’ if played again and only reflect too easily ‘being of their time’. Others have transcended the contemporary tropes and remain sublime: Them’s ‘Here Comes The Night’ for instance; or, The Rolling Stones’ ‘It’s All Over Now.’