It’s National, possibly International Beatles Week. It’s interesting how the phenomenon of the Beatles continues to obsess us (it’s fifty years since the fateful skiffle meeting between John and Paul). It will be interesting to see (although I won’t be here to see it) how they fare in another fifty years’ time. What is particularly interesting is the way in which everything was crammed into the eight years from 1962-1970. Rather as newpapers continue to sell if they put Princess Di on their covers, the main music magazines – Mojo, Uncut, Record Collector, possibly even The Word – continue to boost their circulations by placing one or more of the Beatles on their covers. The fact that their songs have only just been remastered properly for CD is a cunning marketing ploy, as has been the fact the prices of their various albums have rarely been reduced. By refusing to give in to the suggestion that some of what they did might not be worth the full whack, the publishers have continued to give the impression that they continue to be head and shoulders above all other music-makers, ever.
While it is true that Wings (McCartney’s later outfit) more or less matched the Beatles for sales, there are many myths about the Beatles and their musical and other artistic skills. Part of the problem with working out what they were worth is caused by the astonishing number of firsts they achieved in packaging. Sgt Pepper in particular started a very large number of crazes. It was the first to print the lyrics. It was the first to segue the tracks. It was the first to include gifts (cardboard cut-outs). It was the first to throw nonsense into the run-out track. And it was the first album not to include a hit single as part of the sales pitch. It was the first to present itself as a kind of concept (the Lonely Hearts Club Band), although, by all accounts, this was a late development. The cover itself, of course, which was more or less the first British gatefold sleeve, had more attention lavished on it. It was also, of course, one of the first albums never designed to be performed.
When you have all these firsts, essentially non-musical, it is hard to work out if the contents are any good. George Martin’s production is good, but that’s a different matter. There are daring wheezes – using Ringo’s mordant voice on the best song; the use of cut-up tape in Mr. Kite; the splicing in of the middle section of A Day In The Life; the climactic use of the orchestra; the use of sound-effects in Good Morning. These, like the gimmicks listed above, are what cemented the Beatles reputation, and what started a whole series of other experiments by other musicians. All the same, songs like ‘Fixing A Hole’, for instance, are really disposable.
In some ways, the Beatles were untouchable, because they were hot-wired into the national psyche, a bit like the Queen (the monarch not the band). All the same, let’s try some opinions.
1. It was Lennon’s voice which made them famous. and gave them the edge. When Paul became the dominant force or voice, the enterprise was doomed.
2. George’s guitar skills were modest – but his guitar sound, as in I Feel Fine, was years ahead of its time.
3. As a player, Paul was the underrated one. His bass-playing is always good.
4. Ringo was a good dance-band drummer, but his contributions sometimes really surprise the listener, as in Strawberry Fields Forever, surely the best song Lennon wrote (as George Martin thought).
5. It would be nice to argue that George’s songs were strong, but they weren’t. He was a skilful borrower – writing a song which begins ‘Something in the way she moves’ when one of the musicians youy’ve hired (James Taylor) to your record label has written a song called ‘Something in the way she moves’ is not very astonishing.
6. Magical Mystery Tour was and remains rubbish. (It is only beaten by Paul’s much later effort, Give My Regards To Broad Street, which is the second worst film I’ve ever seen, Pokemon – The Movie being the worst.)
7. What The Beatles did well were anthems, like All You Need Is Love and Hey Jude. But not Let It Be.
8. John Lennon had as much influence on spectacle design as he did on rock and roll.
9. Yoko Ono’s influence, far from being negative, was very powerful. She was the experimentalist.
10. Thank goodness they never re-formed. What survives is the scent of sentiment, and we can all identify with that powerful aroma.