An ABC of Paul McCartney #6: Fiction

A further instalment in my still-incomplete ABC of the most controversial Beatle.

Has Paul McCartney ever watched the many fictional portrayals of himself? It can’t be good for a person to have had so many actors have so many stabs at you, especially when for such a long time the stabs were potentially wounding.

In the Beatles cartoon series, ‘Paul’ was played by Lance Percival, who was probably perfectly able to do a semi-convincing Liverpool accent but who, for whatever reason, didn’t. The show manual described Paul as getting very excited whenever John was talking, thereby setting a certain tone in McCartney iconography.

Geoffrey Hughes did the voice of Paul in Yellow Submarine. He would later achieve a certain level of TV fame as the slobby Onslow in the insufferable BBC sitcom Keeping Up Appearances, the point of which appeared to be that poor people are funny. But here as elsewhere, the Yellow Submarine team achieved an unexpected degree of wit and insight. When the Beatles are first introduced, Ringo is sloping around the streets of Liverpool by himself; John appears as a Frankenstein monster who transforms into himself by drinking a potion–perhaps an allusion to the generally benign effects of Lennon’s legendary LSD intake on his personal relationships; George is first seen on top of a pyramid, meditating; and Paul walks into the film by coming offstage from an unseen concert where the crowd is going wild. He coolly adjusts his tie and asks ‘What’s the matter, fellas?’ to no-one in particular. This is McCartney the Star, affectionately parodied in Mark Shipper’s Paperback Writer; later in the film, the Beatles essentially become a hive mind and all trace of individuality is lost.

In Richard Marquand’s silly TV movie Birth of the Beatles, McCartney is played by Rod Culbertson mostly as an eager and mindless stooge of Lennon’s. This is only interrupted when McCartney gets increasingly annoyed by Stu Sutcliffe’s inept bass playing. Birth of the Beatles is essentially King Lennon and his Beatles of the Round Table, with Brian Epstein as a sweaty, nervous, painfully sincere Merlin; at one point, Eppy says to John ‘No single one of you is the Beatles. Each one of you is a part. Paul is the heart of the group. George its soul. You’re the mind.’ ‘And Ringo?’ John replies. ‘He’s the flesh and blood,’ says Gandalf. I mean, Brian Epstein. ‘If any one of you stops doing his part, the rest will die.’ Then he utters the Charm of Making, and the Beatles conquer America.

It would take a whole essay to point up the many dodgy things about Birth of the Beatles. In a scene when a disconsolate Epstein arrives at a a rehearsal room to inform the newly besuited band that they’ve been turned down by yet another record company. Lennon (Stephen McKenna, ladling on the sarcasm throughout, you sense because he doesn’t have a lot of other arrows in his quiver) barks ‘You put this in these bloody monkey suits, messed about with our style, and it hasn’t worked, has it?’ The one thing that Epstein didn’t succeed in doing was tell the Beatles what to play; it was the contrast between the immaculate appearance that he crafted, and the wild abandon of the sound they made, that made them so memorable to their earliest audiences. Later on, when Lennon visits Epstein’s office and discovers that their new manager has been beaten up by some rough trade, Saint John delivers a sincere little homily about how ‘Any loving between two people’s all right’, which was rather more 1979 than 1962. The other noticeable thing is a serious case of Seventies Movie Hair; everyone’s hair is much too long, with the 1962 Beatles having hair that belonged to the 1965 Beatles.

Finally, the movie suffers from being based largely on the memoirs of Pete Best. Ryan Michael, who plays Best, is by a large margin the best-looking actor in the film. When Epstein is made by the rest of the band to tell Pete that he’s been fired, and Pete asks why, Epstein tells him ‘They think Ringo is a better drummer.’ ‘That ain’t true!’ Pete protests, in the most excited he’s got throughout the film. ‘I know it! You know it! Even Ringo knows it! All of Liverpool knows it!’ Alas, the recorded evidence shows that Ringo was a much better drummer than Pete Best. On the evidence of his miming in this film, Ryan Michael was a better drummer than Pete Best. The film fucks up the chronology too, placing Best’s firing before the band’s first Parlophone session instead of afterwards. (As any Beatle nerd knows, it was George Martin’s dislike of Pete Best’s drumming that provoked the band into finally doing what they’d wanted for years, namely fire Pete.)

However — and we’ll get back to the Paul McCartney stuff in a second — Birth of the Beatles film does have one fabulous moment, when Ringo first appears in the Cavern as the band’s new drummer (about 1:24 into the film); the crowd hates him and starts a rhythmic chant and clap of ‘Off! Off! Off!’ Lennon instructs Ringo (Ray Ashcroft) to ‘Take ’em home, Ringo!’ (or ‘Take a roll, Ringo!’ — it’s not clear.) Ringo starts to hit a drum in between each chant of ‘Off!’, so that he and the crowd fall into a call-and-response, and then he begins to speed up, forcing the crowd to speed up their chanting and clapping, and then he speeds up so fast that his strokes turn into a ferocious, prolonged single-stroke roll, at which point the crowd dissolves into ecstatic cheering. It’s great. But it never happened.

I’ve seen John and Yoko: A Love Story several years ago, but can’t remember anything about it apart what I perhaps over-fondly remember as a rather effective performance from Mark McGann as Lennon. Kenneth Price as McCartney completely escapes my memory.

In Iain Softley’s Backbeat, McCartney was played with jittery energy by Gary Bakewell. Bakewell at least looked like McCartney, could act, and could also play bass guitar left-handed, a fact which subsequently attracted the attention of the producers of The Linda McCartney Story, who cast him as the titular character’s spouse, thus making Bakewell one of the very few actors to have played the same real person twice in two entirely different movies. To make matters weirder, the most notable other actor to have done so is Ian Hart, who played Lennon in Backbeat and also in The Hours and Times a few years later, making the Beatles undoubtedly the only band two of whose members have been portrayed by the same actors twice each in three different movies. Bakewell’s McCartney is notably more snarky and independent than previous McCartneys, and he doesn’t hesitate to confront Lennon about Sutcliffe’s inadequacies.

Since Backbeat is a film about the friendship of Lennon and Sutcliffe, this makes McCartney one of the principal antagonists. But it also has one of the best soundtracks of any Beatle movie not made by the Beatles themselves, with rock’n’roll covers performed by a dream team of musicians from the early 90s US alternative scene.

It wasn’t until the 21st century that portrayals of McCartney really began to dig beneath the myth. In Two of Us, a film about the mid-1970s meetings of Lennon and McCartney in New York, McCartney is played with beguiling charm and remarkable sensitivity by Aidan Quinn, who manages to convey a strong sense of McCartney-ness while neither looking nor sounding like him. It helps that he’s up against Jared Harris, who if anything looks even less like John Lennon. But then Harris has the instantly imitable cawing Lennon voice to rely on, whereas Quinn manages to convey Maccahood simply by softening his voice a bit and deferring to Lennon as the senior partner.

In Nowhere Boy, Sam Taylor-Wood’s study of the teenage Lennon, McCartney is Thomas Brodie Sangster; a scrawny, quiffed, intimidatingly serious, Teddy-Boy-jacketed music nerd. Nowhere Boy was not very well-received on its release, mainly because the central character didn’t seem much like John Lennon, but the reviewers missed the point; it was a film about how an unfocused and resentful teenager transformed himself into John Lennon. Aaron Johnson’s performance is very interesting. His Lennon is not the cool, dry, deadpan snarker that we’ve seen in nearly every other Beatles film ever. He’s unformed and embryonic; he mostly comes across as an insecure, gauche, tactless, talentless twit, in desperate need of something to pull his life together. He finds it in music, but it’s not until Brodie Sangster walks his cautious way into the movie that Lennon finally comes up against someone who is as serious about music as he is.

Nowhere Boy is the only movie to have dared to portray the primal scene in Beatles mythology, the Meeting of John and Paul. Taylor-Wood plays it very cool indeed. The Quarry Men are doing their shambling thing on the back of a truck when a skinny, round-faced kid in a white jacket is seen in the crowd. He’s with a friend. The friend is smiling, obviously enjoying it. The skinny kid looks at his friend with a certain amount of disbelief. He then looks back at the band, thoughtful, and his brow wrinkles. They’re all right, he seems to be thinking, but they could be a fuck of a lot better.

After the ‘gig’, the Quarry Men are knocking back some ales in the church hall and the friend introduces McCartney: ‘Paul plays too.’ Johnson’s Lennon, playing to his mates, replies, ‘What, with himself?’ and then introduces himself and offers McCartney a beer. McCartney asks for tea, but there isn’t any. He thinks the band is ‘all right’. Lennon decides that if Ivan likes Paul, Paul’s all right. ‘How all right are you on one of those?’ Lennon asks, indicating McCartney’s guitar. ‘I’m all right,’ he says, putting it on. McCartney does a fluent version of ‘Twenty Flight Rock’. Lennon dismisses him as being too young, but in the next scene McCartney has become Musical Adviser, teaching Lennon new chords.

Later, there are two lovely scenes between Johnson and Sangster; one in which Lennon and McCartney, practising in Lennon’s Aunt Mimi’s front porch, because it sounds better there, talk about what they’re into music for. McCartney asks Lennon why he likes ‘smashin’s stuff up and actin’ like a dick’ and admits that he’s in it for the music. Lennon is taken aback to learn that McCartney’s mother is dead. Later still comes a scene after Lennon’s own mother Julia has been killed. McCartney is attending the wake when, being the nerd he is, he picks up Julia’s banjo and starts trying to figure out how it’s played.

John becomes enraged and grabs the banjo off him, and when his friend Pete Shotton tries to intervene, John headbutts him and storms out of the house. Paul runs after him, and dares John to hit him. John punches him in the face. As Paul lies in the street, astonished, John finally realises what a colossal dick he’s been being for most of the film and apologises to Paul, helping him up; the boys embrace and weep, finally finding the common ground they’ve been denying; the loss of their mothers.

It’s this scene that forms the heart of Nowhere Boy, making it the darkest and best Beatles film yet, precisely because nobody in it is attempting to impersonate the Beatles. It’s a film about a bunch of kids, specifically one kid and his relationship with his mum, but also reflecting the way in which even a band as monumental and iconic as the Beatles were once just a bunch of fuckwits knocking around Liverpool.

Whether or not it’s true to what happened is, in a way, neither here nor there. It further reinforces the ways in which the Beatles, like any other music you love, are a way you have of making sense of the world.

An ABC of Paul McCartney #6: Fiction

Aphorisms Part 2

Hardly aphorisms. More like ‘I’m too tired to write a proper post.’

Here goes:

The shit that Adorno talked about jazz is literally true about Led Zeppelin.

You need entry-level rock, for people who are too timorous to feel anything intensely. In the 70s it was provided by Status Quo; in the 80s, nobody provided it; in the 90s, Oasis.

As anyone who’s listened to his recordings can confirm, reports of Charlie Parker’s death have been exaggerated.

Haydn and Sterne: the originators are the greatest jokers.

The general lack of enthusiasm for Haydn goes to show that the lip-service we pay to innovation in music is nothing more than that.

Nobody likes to admit the extent to which any one period in music history exactly resembles every other.

It is high time that two things were established once and for all:

1.) The Beatles‘ pre-eminence in the history of post-WW2 popular music;
2.) The exact nature of what The Beatles were crap at.


Aphorisms Part 2

Piero Scaruffi and truth

I hadn’t heard of Piero Scaruffi until I came across this TV tropes page on him recently, in which this Italian scientist who also has a website in which he’s reviewed, like, bazillions of albums, was said to have written a ‘controversial’ essay on the Beatles and how overrated they are. Well, I’m always interested in anyone wanting to have a go at the Beatles because so many try and so few do it well, so I googled ‘Piero Scaruffi beatles’, and I found what I take to be his best thoughts on the subject.

This is one of those situations where you dread even wandering into the line of fire, because the guy is obviously so sure that he’s right, and that anyone who disagrees with him is wrong. You can feel the stupidity clinging to you in sticky fronds even as you read. But since what I’ve read of his article is riddled with factually inaccurate assertions stated as if they were true, I can’t let it go unchallenged. I have not gone through his entire essay, which is very long. Just the top several pages.

First off, anyone who’s read this blog can tell what I think of the Beatles, but my opinion is neither here nor there. I am not arguing that Scaruffi is wrong to think that the Beatles are ‘trivial’ and ‘overrated’. He can think whatever he wants. He is, as they say, entitled to his opinion. What he is not entitled to do is insist that his opinion is worth anything, if it’s based on an inaccurate perception of reality. What I am saying — and let there be no ambiguity whatever about this — is that Scaruffi, intentionally or otherwise, and in the extracts that I have quoted, largely misrepresents the facts about the Beatles in an attempt to downplay the nature of their achievement. He may know that he’s doing this, in which case he’s mendacious. I prefer to be charitable, and believe that he doesn’t know he’s doing it; that he is, rather, intellectually inadequate to be a music critic. Nothing else I have read on his site convinces me that he has the intellectual tools that the job requires.

His basic technique is to report as fact something which he assumes that his listeners will be unable to contradict, but which anyone with basic knowledge of the subject knows to be untrue. Here we go:

Jazz critics have long recognized that the greatest jazz musicians of all times are Duke Ellington and John Coltrane, who were not the most famous or richest or best sellers of their times, let alone of all times.

Ellington and Coltrane are supremely important jazz musicians. However, jazz critics in the real world, as opposed to the imaginary jazz critics in Piero Scaruffi’s head, have long recognised that Louis Armstrong is as important, and possibly more so. Here’s Martin Williams in The Jazz Tradition: ‘If we take the most generally agreed-upon aesthetic judgments about jazz music, the first would undoubtedly be the dominant position and influence of Louis Armstrong — and that influence is not only agreed upon, it is easily demonstrable from recordings.’ And here’s Richard Cook in his Jazz Encyclopedia: ‘[…C]ontemporary jazz celebrities such as Wynton Marsalis have insisted on the primacy not only of the universally acknowledged early work but the rest of Armstrong’s oeuvre as a potent and powerful legacy. If the world’s music still swings today, it is in large part because of what he was first doing, eight decades ago.’ Here’s Whitney Balliett, writing in the Fifties: ‘For all that, he [Armstrong] has managed, as the purest of all jazz musicians, to be an infallible definition of just what jazz is.’ Here’s Ted Gioia, in his History of Jazz: ‘Surely no body of work in the jazz idiom has been so loved and admired as the results of these celebrated sessions, the immortal Hot Fives and Hot Sevens. In historical importance and sheer visionary grandeur, only a handful of other recordings — the Ellington band work of the early 40s, the Charlie Parker Savoy and Dial sessions, the Miles Davis recordings of the late 50s come to mind — can compare with them. Certainly none can surpass them.’ And here’s Village Voice jazz critic Gary Giddins, the author of a book-length study of Armstrong, writing in Visions of Jazz: ‘If the twentieth century has proven to be the American era in music — an assessment made with increasing frequency and growing confidence — it can also be characterized as the Armstrong era.’

Why does Scaruffi omits any mention of Armstrong? Because Armstrong was an indisputably great musician who was also wildly popular and commercially successful. Scaruffi’s contempt for the ‘masses’, which we’ll see more of later, means that he cannot accept that any musician who’s been broadly successful with the public has any merit; if the ‘masses’ love it, it can’t be good. The flipside of this is that he will downplay and even misrepresent the popularity of musicians that he likes. The idea that Ellington and Coltrane were in any way unpopular or obscure is completely inane. Ellington during his lifetime became as famous as any jazz musician gets, winning nine Grammies, appearing on the cover of Time magazine and receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1969. Coltrane’s A Love Supreme sold in the hundreds of thousands, and an abridged version of his cover of ‘My Favourite Things’ was even a hit single. But Scaruffi never lets the facts get in the way of what he wants to say. In fact, his contempt for fact is all over this piece.

Classical critics rank the highly controversial Beethoven over classical musicians who were highly popular in courts around Europe.

Who are the musicians that these ‘classical critics’ rank Beethoven ‘over’? Could he mean Haydn, who was enormously popular in Europe and who has been routinely regarded as one of the greatest composers in history? Haydn doesn’t appear in Scaruffi’s remarkably unadventurous list of great classical works. And to what degree was Beethoven ‘controversial’, anyway? His personal behaviour could be controversial; the quality of his music was much less so. He was generally agreed to be a genius, and when he died, thousands followed his coffin.

In passing, let’s take a look at Scaruffi’s list of the greatest pieces of classical music you’ll ever hear:

• Ludwig Van Beethoven: Symphony 9 (1824)

• Franz Schubert: Symphony 9 in C Major “Great” (1828)

• Wolfgang Mozart: Concerto 21 in C K467 (1785)

• Johann Sebastian Bach: Mass in B Minor (1749)

• Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony 15 (1971)

• Gustav Mahler: Symphony 9 (1910)

• Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde (1859)

• Giuseppe Verdi: Requiem (1874)

• Johann Sebastian Bach: Brandenburger Concertos (1721)

• Bela Bartok: Concerto for Orchestra (1943)

• Johannes Brahms: Symphony 4

• Franz Schubert: Quintet for 2 Violins, Viola and 2 Cellos in C major, D956 Op. 163

• Bela Bartok: Quartet 4

• Ludwig Van Beethoven: String Quartet No.14 Op.131

• Shostakovich: Quintet in G minor for Piano & String Quartet, Opus 57

• Ludwig Van Beethoven: Triple Concerto C major

• Leos Janacek: Glagolitic Mass (1926)

• Igor Stravinskij: Le Sacre du Printemps (1913)

• Antonin Dvorak: Symphony 9 (1893)

• Antonio Vivaldi: Il Cimento dell’Armonia op 8 (1725)

• Hector Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique (1829)

• Olivier Messiaen: Quatuor Pour La Fin Du Temps (1940)

* Claude Debussy: Jeux

What’s striking about this list is how amazingly conservative it is. There is nothing earlier than Bach, and nothing later than Bartok. Everything on it could be programmed by the least ambitious director of the least adventurous provincial symphony orchestra, with no fear that subscribers would be frightened away. (If that Vivaldi looks unfamiliar to you, he means the Four Seasons — he’s just using the title of the larger set to which they belong to make himself look like he knows about classical music.)

Scaruffi professes to despise the Beatles for being ‘mainstream’, but this list is mainstream with a vengeance: no Gesualdo, no Schoenberg, no Webern, no Stockhausen, no Babbitt, no Ligeti; but more interestingly, not a single Bach cantata, when the general consensus these days is that Bach’s cantatas are far more central to his achievement and career than something like the Brandenburgs, which, great as they are, are nowadays most often heard as pre-flight music on Ryanair planes. Only one work by Mozart, and that not an opera; nothing by Haydn, Sibelius, Handel, Palestrina, Gabrieli, Victoria, Tallis, Byrd or anyone else from before the 17th century; no Britten, no Berg, no Henze, no Birtwistle, no Partch, Cage, Feldman or even Glass or Reich.

Rock critics are still blinded by commercial success: the Beatles sold more than anyone else (not true, by the way), therefore they must have been the greatest.

Freesheet reviewers might do this when explaining the success of the most recent Beatles compilation, but serious rock criticism, which was invented partly in order to deal with the Beatles, has never made a simple equation of popularity with merit. The Beatles’ popularity is, if anything, something that serious rock criticism has had to explain away. More to the point, if the popularity of popular music has nothing at all to do with its merit, then it doesn’t matter how many records the Beatles sold.

Beatles’ “aryan” music removed any trace of black music from rock and roll: it replaced syncopated african rhythm with linear western melody, and lusty negro attitudes with cute white-kid smiles.

Leaving aside the eye-popping racism and unforgivable inanity of this characterisation of ‘black music’, insofar as it tries to describe what the Beatles did with the styles of black music that the band knew, it’s the reverse of the truth. The Beatles married Western harmonies and melodic techniques to rhythmic foundations learned in part from rock & roll and in part from black American pop music — not ‘african rhythm’, of which they, like most of the black American musicians they admired, knew nothing at all. No British pop musicians before the Beatles had such a grounding in black American pop, and not many white bands since have been able to match the Beatles’ groove — e.g., ‘The Word’, ‘Drive My Car’, ‘She’s A Woman’, ‘Got To Get You Into My Life’.

Contemporary musicians never spoke highly of the Beatles, and for a good reason.

The Rolling Stones disliked the Beatles so much that they begged Lennon and McCartney to write a song for them; went to the Beatles’ parties; attended the Beatles’ recording sessions; appeared on the Beatles’ records and got the Beatles to appear on their own. Eric Clapton, a principled hero of rock, showed his loathing for everything the Beatles stood for by becoming one of Harrison’s best friends and jumping at the chance of playing on a Beatles session. Jimi Hendrix despised the Beatles so much that he was playing the title track of Sgt Pepper within a couple of days of the album being released. In short, the contempt with which the Beatles were regarded by their peers is familiar to nobody who knows anything at all about the history of popular music.

They could not figure out why the Beatles’ songs should be regarded more highly than their own.

Yeah, the stupid ones probably couldn’t.

They knew that the Beatles were simply lucky to become a folk phenomenon (thanks to “Beatlemania”, which had nothing to do with their musical merits). That phenomenon kept alive interest in their (mediocre) musical endeavours to this day.

The meaning isn’t clear, but he seems to be suggesting that people only go on listening to the Beatles because they are historically interested in the phenomenon of Beatlemania. Which is the same reason why Charles Manson’s album continues to sit at the top of the album charts, all these years later.

Not to mention the American musicians who created what the Beatles later sold to the masses.

You can’t accuse the Beatles of selling other people’s music and simultaneously accuse them of changing the same music before they sold it. If they changed the music, then they transformed it into their own music; if they didn’t change it, then in selling it to the masses, they can’t have wrecked it.

The Beatles sold a lot of records not because they were the greatest musicians but simply because their music was easy to sell to the masses: it had no difficult content, it had no technical innovations, it had no creative depth.

While it’s true that difficult (i.e, non-catchy) music is seldom very popular, there is no reason to suppose that the ‘masses’ automatically reject technical innovation; if a record is hot enough, people will buy it, no matter how innovative it is or isn’t, and the truth is that most listeners neither know nor care about the level of technical innovation in a record. In any case, it is demonstrably untrue that the Beatles’ music was not technically innovative. Among the techniques that they pioneered in popular music were: controlled feedback, automatic double-tracking, use of tape loops, use of Indian musical techniques, use of chance techniques, creative use of studio technology (feeding Lennon’s voice through a Leslie speaker on Tomorrow Never Knows), etc. And those are just their innovations in recording technique; their innovations in musical style and songwriting are too numerous to go into.

Among the Beatles’ songs to have no ‘creative depth’ are: Eleanor Rigby, Strawberry Fields Forever, A Day In The Life, Hey Jude, Blackbird, I Am The Walrus, Happiness Is A Warm Gun, Something, Help!, Ticket To Ride, Long Long Long . . .

They wrote a bunch of catchy 3-minute ditties and they were photogenic. If somebody had not invented “beatlemania” in 1963, you would not have wasted five minutes of your time to read a page about such a trivial band.

Beatlemania was not an invention, but the name given by the media to a real historical phenomenon.

For most of their career the Beatles were four mediocre musicians who sang melodic three-minute tunes at a time when rock music was trying to push itself beyond that format (a format originally confined by the technical limitations of 78 rpm record). They were the quintessence of “mainstream”, assimilating the innovations proposed by rock music, within the format of the melodic song.

You say that like it’s a bad thing.

To be serious, once again Scaruffi has it backwards: later rock music picked up on what the Beatles were doing (unusual harmonies, studio experimentation, serious lyrics, emotional intensity) and continued to do it, but no other band did all of what they did. Prog-rock bands extended the musical range, largely at the expense of emotional intensity; hard rock ramped up the intensity, but at the expense of melody and concision. As Joe Carducci put it, the Beatles were simultaneously the biggest pop group in the world, and the world’s first rock band.

The Beatles were the quintessence of instrumental mediocrity. George Harrison was a pathetic guitarist, compared with the London guitarists of those days (Townshend of the Who, Richards of the Rolling Stones, Davies of the Kinks, Clapton and Beck and Page of the Yardbirds, and many others who were less famous but no less original).

There are no instances in the Beatles’ official recordings of Harrison not being up to the task before him; he wasn’t a virtuoso because he wasn’t required to be one. He understood that his role was to serve the song, something which all of the above, with the possible exception of Richards, forgot from time to time. A guitar hero of the Clapton sort would have had no place in the band. What Dave Davies, of all people, is doing in this company, is anyone’s guess.

The Beatles had completely missed the revolution of rock music (founded on a prominent use of the guitar) and were still trapped in the stereotypes of the easy-listening orchestras.

What this means, if it means anything at all, is not clear. Is he trying to say that he Beatles didn’t use guitars?

Paul McCartney was a singer from the 1950s, who could not have possibly sounded more conventional. As a bassist, he was not worth the last of the rhythm and blues bassists (even though within the world of Merseybeat his style was indeed revolutionary).

This is the same Paul McCartney who sang Long Tall Sally, Helter Skelter and Oh! Darling, in case you were wondering, and the same bass player responsible for the bass parts in Taxman, Rain, Come Together and I Saw Her Standing There. What ‘rhythm and blues bassists’ Scaruffi is talking about, I doubt even he knows; presumably he has some shadowy awareness that people played on Motown records, but I doubt he could tell you Jerry Jemmott from James Jamerson, since they’re all ‘african’ to him.

Ringo Starr played drums the way any kid of that time played it in his garage (even though he may ultimately be the only one of the four who had a bit of technical competence). Overall, the technique of the “fab four” was the same of many other easy-listening groups: sub-standard.

What ‘other easy-listening groups’ is he talking about? Since he can say nothing about Starr’s actual technique as a drummer — such as Starr’s mastery of timbre and tempo — I think we can assume that this faint praise is not in good faith.

Theirs were records of traditional songs crafted as they had been crafted for centuries

I think he’s mistaking the Beatles for Fairport Convention, here.

yet they served an immense audience, far greater than the audience of those who wanted to change the world, the hippies and protesters. Their fans ignored or abhorred the many rockers of the time who were experimenting with the suite format, who were composing long free-form tracks, who were using dissonance, who were radically changing the concept of the musical piece. The Beatles’ fans thought, and some still think, that using trumpets in a rock song was a revolutionary event, that using background noises (although barely noticeable) was an even more revolutionary event, and that only great musical geniuses could vary so many styles in one album, precisely what many rock musicians were doing all over the world, employing much more sophisticated stylistic excursions.

Since the Beatles’ level of fandom was unique precisely because it crossed all boundaries of age, class, sex, nationality, political inclination and race, it’s impossible to lump all their fans together in this manner.

While the Velvet Underground, Frank Zappa, the Doors, Pink Floyd and many others were composing long and daring suites worthy of avant garde music, thus elevating rock music to art, the Beatles continued to yield three minute songs built around a chorus. Beatlemania and its myth notwithstanding, Beatles fans went crazy for twenty seconds of trumpet, while the Velvet Underground were composing suites of chaos twenty minutes long.

When the Beatles were sticking baroque trumpet on ‘Penny Lane’, the Velvet Underground’s first album hadn’t even come out yet. By the time the first Velvets album came out, the Beatles were finishing Sgt Pepper. The Velvets album that contains the closest thing to a ‘suite of chaos twenty minutes long’ is White Light/White Heat, whose final track ‘Sister Ray’ is a seventeen-minute jam on one chord, and if Piero Scaruffi seriously thinks that it’s the greatest thing the Velvet Underground ever did as opposed to a juvenile art gesture, he’s got a tin fucking ear. Incidentally, Scaruffi’s earlier crack about how the Beatles removed all traces of ‘black music’ from their music is far more true about the Velvet Underground than it is about the Beatles. Almost alone among great 60s rock bands, the Velvets never, ever swung. They were a white folk-rock band turned up to 10.

Actually, between noise and a trumpet, between twenty seconds and twenty minutes, there was an artistic difference of several degrees of magnitude. They were, musically, sociologically, politically, artistically, and ideologically, on different planets.

Yes, the radical political awareness in the Velvet Underground’s songs is well known to all.

The Beatles had the historical function to delay the impact of the innovations of the 60’s.

Again, this is quite a long way away from meaning anything, but insofar as it reflects a perception that the Beatles were not at the forefront of change in the 1960s, the historical record shows that people at the time felt that the opposite was the case. They might not have liked the change much, but nobody doubted that the Beatles were part of its vanguard.

Between 1966 and 1969, while suites, jams, and long free form tracks (which the Beatles also tried but only toward the end of their career) became the fashion, while the world was full of guitarists, bassist, singers and drummers who played solos and experimented with counterpoint, the Beatles limited themselves to keeping the tempo and following the melody.

Like on A Day In The Life.

Their historic function was also to prepare the more conservative audience for those innovations. Their strength was perhaps being the epitome of mediocrity: never a flash of genius, never a revolutionary thought, never a step away from what was standard, accepting innovations only after they had been accepted by the establishment. And maybe it was that chronic mediocrity that made their fortune: whereas other bands tried to surpass their audiences, to keep two steps ahead of the myopia of their fans, traveling the hard and rocky road, the Beatles took their fans by the hand and walked them along a straight path devoid of curves and slopes.

That’s why they kept touring until the very end, and didn’t spend hours in the studio trying to find new ways of making music.

The Beatles are justly judged for the beautiful melodies they have written. But those melodies were “beautiful” only when compared to the melodies of those who were not trying to write melodies; in other words to the musicians who were trying to rewrite the concept of popular music by implementing suites, jams and noise.

Once again, we’re skirting meaninglessness here, but he seems to be saying that the Beatles’ melodies were only beautiful compared to melodies by musicians who didn’t write melodies.

Many contemporaries of Beethoven wrote better minuets than Beethoven ever wrote, but only because Beethoven was writing something else. In fact, he was trying to write music that went beyond the banality of minuets.

There is nothing intrinsically banal about a minuet, as Beethoven knew perfectly well, writing many of them throughout his career, such as the ones in the third Razumovsky Quartet and in Piano Sonata No 18, to name two off the top of my head. Scaruffi would know this if he’d listened to anything by Beethoven besides the Ninth Symphony. When Scaruffi tries to talk about classical music, he comes across like a pompous twelve-year-old who’s read the liner notes of his dad’s CD collection and thinks that that makes him Donald Tovey.

Moreover, Martin undoubtedly had a taste for unusual sounds. At the beginning of his career he had produced Rolf Harris’ Tie Me Kangaroo with the didjeridoo.

He means Sun Arise (1961). Far from being made at the beginning of Martin’s career, it was made eleven years after he joined EMI.

At the time nobody knew what it was. Between 1959 and 1962 Martin had produced several tracks of British humor with heavy experimentation, inspired by the Californian Stan Freiberg, the first to use the recording studio as an instrument.

He means Stan Freberg, but if he’s trying to suggest that Stan Freberg was the first person ever to muck around in a recording studio, he should take it up with Spike Jones. In any case, the history of experiments in sound recording is as old as the history of recorded sound.

Those of us who write about music in more than a dilettante way believe that writing about music is subject to the same rules as writing any other kind of non-fiction. You should write so that your meaning is clear. You should strive to be consistent. If you have an argument to make, you should base what you have to say on solid evidence. You should avoid writing badly, unclearly or illogically. You should try not to be dull. Piero Scaruffi flouts all these rules, but that wouldn’t matter so much because lots of people break them. But there is one rule in writing music criticism, the breaking of which is the only truly unforgivable error, and it’s the one that I’ve tried to demonstrate Piero Scaruffi breaks all the time, it would seem compulsively, perhaps without even knowing or caring that he does so.

You are not allowed to make shit up.

Piero Scaruffi and truth

Noel Gallagher and influences

I don’t normally post about stuff that I don’t like. I prefer to praise. The easy kind of praise is to try to suggest that something that people don’t like is in fact brilliant; far harder is to find a new angle on something generally agreed to be great. However, the Guardian today ran a series of extracts from interviews with songwriters and one of the interviewees was Noel Gallagher, who gave us this wisdom on the art of songwriting, his own personal practice, and the cultural context in which he works:

I only listen to music derived or from the 60s. I’m not interested in jazz or hip-hop or whatever’s going round at the minute; indie shit. I don’t loathe it but I don’t listen to it. My education as a songwriter was from listening to the Kinks and the Who and the Beatles. I don’t listen to avant-garde landscapes and think, “I could do that.” I’m not a fan of Brian Eno. It’s Ray Davies, John Lennon and Pete Townshend for me. [. . .] It would take all the magic out of it to break down “I Am the Walrus” to its basic components. I listen to it and go, “It’s fucking amazing; why is it amazing? I don’t know, it just is.” That’s why I find journalists such joyless fucking idiots. They have to break music down and pull it apart until there’s nothing left, until they know it all; they analyse it down until it’s bland nonsense. They don’t listen to music like the rest of us.


First off, Mr G has to be given a certain amount of respect for not dissing music he’s not interested in, although there’s a certain wishy-washiness in his professed indifference to, but not actual loathing of, ‘whatever’s going around at the minute’ — isn’t he even curious? Doesn’t he feel like there’s any competition? But that’s not the main point. The main point is his claim that ‘my education as a songwriter was from listening to the Kinks and the Who and the Beatles. [. . .] It’s Ray Davies, John Lennon and Pete Townshend for me.’

I don’t especially care who Noel Gallagher thinks are his influences, or who he would like us to believe are his influences as a songwriter, or who he would like us to believe he considers his influences. But the Kinks, the Who and the Beatles are not among them.

There was an idiotic media trope in the late 90s which was about asking whether or not Oasis were better than the Beatles. Oasis had beaten Blur in terms of stadium attendance, although nobody realised at the time that Oasis had already peaked, whereas Blur were just about to enter one of their most creative periods. The Beatles invented the modern practice of being a band, wrote the book of modern rock/pop stardom, generated the practice of pop music journalism as we know it and have one of the most covered catalogues of songs of any musical creator in the history of music. Oasis are a pub-rock band that got lucky and their only notable cover version is by Mike Flowers Pops.

It’s not that Oasis don’t have influences. You can hear all sorts of traces of previous music in theirs. Roll With It has always struck me as being 50% Status Quo and 50% late-period Husker Du; the first half of the chorus (‘You gotta rolll with it’, etc.) is generic Quo, and the latter half, with the arpeggiated folk-rock roll down from the IV to the ii chord, is from Husker Du’s Makes No Sense At All, slowed down because Oasis can’t play fast. Don’t Look Back In Anger is early 70s Bowie with any trace of sexual ambiguity ruthlessly expunged, and therefore minus a lot of the fun. Wonderwall vaguely reminds you of lots of people, mostly from the softer end of 80s/90s US alternative rock, but nobody in particular, except insofar as the title is taken from a film that George Harrison did the music for. Oasis don’t even have the manners to steal from obscure bands: the verse of Lyla is a direct cop from the Stones’ Street Fighting Man, but less, you know, good. Of all their singles, Live Forever is the only one where the direct influence of the Beatles can be detected: specifically, the early songs of George Harrison. In terms of its primitive harmonic movement and sulky, leave-me-alone mood, Live Forever is a coke-fuelled, fuzz-addled descendant of Harrison’s early and not very good Don’t Bother Me. To be fair, Live Forever enjoys its own bad humour a lot more than Don’t Bother Me does, but karmically speaking it’s no more dignified.

They used to say that Noel Gallagher was the greatest songwriter since Lennon & McCartney. I used to joke that he was indeed like Lennon and McCartney; he had all of Lennon’s knack for seductive, catchy melody and all of McCartney’s gritty, hard-edged directness.

It wasn’t a very good joke. In fact he’s like neither. Gallagher’s melodies, such as you can call them that, are relentlessly four-square and regular, with none of Lennon’s obsessive rhythmic quirks, such as the brief snatch of 3/4 built into She Said She Said, the kind of song that Gallagher probably imagines to be one of his big influences. Noel Gallagher songs are built on the most basic first position guitar chords because Gallagher’s never bothered to learn any other instrument, and hasn’t really learned the guitar either; McCartney, by contrast, tinkers endlessly with other instruments (most notably the piano) and has written many memorable songs derived from that same tinkering, with a hell of a lot more seductive harmonic sophistication than you can get from just farting about with G, C, D, A minor and E minor. The Beatles’ songs were meticulously arranged, in many cases for instruments such as sitar and French horn which had seldom if ever appeared on pop records before. Noel Gallagher had exactly two ideas about how to arrange Oasis songs: one was to dub endless guitars over the top, and the other was to hire a full orchestra. The Beatles were a band. Oasis was Noel Gallagher and a bunch of fuckwits from Manchester.

Ray Davies? Please. Noel Gallagher wouldn’t dare write something as pawky as Sunny Afternoon, as vulnerable as Lola or as beautifully observed as Waterloo Sunset. Pete Townshend, unlike Noel Gallagher, reads books and writes songs that are about things. Noel Gallagher, on his own admission (‘I’m not a great reader of books; I’m not a great art lover’) doesn’t read books and writes songs that are about nothing.

And that’s not even including the songs that were subjects of lawsuits. Shakermaker rips off the melody from I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing, although the older song is characteristically more interesting than Oasis’ ripoff of it, because having stated its hook it then goes somewhere else with it, whereas Oasis, frozen with ineptitude, hang on the same chord. Exactly the same thing happens with Whatever; having quoted the opening melody of Neil Innes’ How Sweet To Be An Idiot, the tune gets lost in a blurry harmonic mush, whereas Innes’ skilfully-crafted original traverses to a minor key via whole-tone harmony and . . . well, anyway. Oasis paid the composers of I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing half a million dollars by way of apologising for taking their tune and fucking it up, and Neil Innes was awarded a composer credit on Whatever because his line is the only catchy part in the whole song. This wasn’t the band’s only ‘borrowing’ from other bands, of course. Half The World Away doesn’t sound like REM’s Half A World Away, but the titles speak for themselves.

In conclusion, then: Noel Gallagher’s influences are the odd bit of pop music he heard on telly as a kid during the 70s, and the stuff he listened to in the 80s when he was young and impressionable, as opposed to the 60s music he discovered or rediscovered in the 90s, when he was old enough to hear how good it was, but too old to learn anything from it.

Noel Gallagher, I seriously doubt you’ll ever read this, but in the ridiculous arrogance of late-night blogging, here goes: don’t you dare call me ‘joyless’. I love music. I love music which makes me feel good, surprises me, excites me. I love music that comes from a tradition but which makes that tradition seem like a living thing. I love music that seems to come from nowhere, and yet speaks directly to me. I love music that jumbles different things together and forges them into something powerfully expressive that couldn’t have come from anywhere else, but is still a wholly new thing. What I don’t love is your lazy, unimaginative, self-consciously thoughtless, craft-free approach to making music. You dare to call people who love music enough to think about it ‘joyless’? Is it because, if anyone thinks about your music for more than two seconds, it falls to pieces?

Well, as you would say: whatever.

Noel Gallagher and influences

The Company They Kept: The Beatles’ recordings in context #1

The Beatles revolutionised popular music, yadda yadda yadda. People who don’t like them get tired of hearing that over and over again (and if you’re one of them, you really need to read Nitsuh Abebe’s hilarious article on how to write an effective anti-Beatle rant before you post a comment.) This blog assumes that, like me, you find the Beatles interesting. But perhaps, like me, you get a bit impatient with talk of how the Beatles ‘changed the face of’ popular music, or whatever. I was curious about whether or not it could have seemed like that at the time. On thinking about it, I realised that I didn’t know what the face of British popular music in 1962 looked like.

Everything gets revived sooner or later, or at least it seems to. Look at Richard Hawley, who’s got to where he is by conducting his entire career as though there hasn’t been any popular music since around 1963. This is the only explanation for why he would want to collaborate with Hank Marvin (on what’s admittedly a very pretty track.) But Hawley is an unusually intelligent and talented fan of pre-Beatles pop music. For most fans of the era, it’s simply a cue for nostalgia. Nostalgia being a longing for something that seems better in retrospect than it was at the time, Beatles fans who were actually around while the band was making music tend to feel nostalgia with tragic intensity. The most conspicuous example is the late Ian MacDonald, whose Revolution in the Head: the Beatles’ Records and the Sixties sought to put the band in its historical and cultural context. It’s a great book but its flaws are great too, and they’re deeply bound up with MacDonald’s overall take on the Beatles, which has to do with his sense that all of cultural history since the Beatles’ breakup was a sad falling-away into empty meaninglessness. MacDonald’s great failing as a critic was one he shared with Sainte-Beuve, an inability to see the good in his contemporaries, especially if they were the coming thing, as opposed to something he’d grown up with. Hence his bizarre contempt for Bill Hicks, who he dismissed as — if memory serves, since I don’t have a copy of the review in question — ‘a speeded-up version of Lenny Bruce’, a wisecrack which registered Hicks’ idealism but missed his comic materialism, his irrepressible Goat-Boy persona.

Gah! I’ve let myself be sidetracked into writing the critique of Ian MacDonald that I wanted to do some other time. What I really want to do is something that the print-bound Ian MacDonald would surely have liked to do: offer a direct sense of the cultural context of the Beatles’ early releases, instead of just write about them. This is the first of a series of posts in which I’ll be presenting some Beatles’ recordings in the context of the UK top 20 charts, at the times that their earliest recordings were released, and also when they reached their highest position. The Beatles’ recordings didn’t get issued in the USA until later, and we’ll deal with that a bit further on.

We can do this because of the UK Singles Archive, which gathers together the singles charts as compiled by Record Retailer back in the day, and Spotify, which at this point has gathered together every nanosecond of music ever recorded — with one notable exception. The Beatles’ music isn’t on Spotify, except for Love Me Do, which is the only recording of theirs that’s in the public domain, and it might not be there for long. Still, I’m guessing that most of you will have their music available in some form or another (and even if you don’t, it’s on iTunes) so you can slot it into a playlist where necessary. If you don’t have Spotify, you can get it for free, or else you can look up all these songs on YouTube. They’re all there.

Why did the Beatles’ music take off the way it did? Against what musical backdrop did they appear? Why did people think that they were so cool? Without wanting to alienate fans of the below artists — and I enjoy some of the music in these lists, if not all of it — I think that hearing the music that was in the air when the Beatles came along helps us to understand the nature of the impact they had at the time. If you love this music, please feel free to ignore my more negative commentaries. (I’m not looking for a fight and if you attempt to pick one, I won’t rise to it; comments are moderated.)

The Beatles’ first single, Lennon & McCartney’s Love Me Do, was released in the UK on 5 October 1962. The week beginning 29 September 1962, the UK Top 20 was this:

1. Elvis Presley – She’s Not You

2. Cliff Richard and The Shadows – It’ll Be Me

3. The Tornados – Telstar

4. Frank Ifield – I Remember You

5. Ronnie Carroll – Roses Are Red (My Love)

6. Bobby Darin – Things

7. Brian Hyland – Sealed With A Kiss

8. Adam Faith – Don’t That Beat All

9. Neil Sedaka – Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

10. Tommy Roe – Sheila

11. The Shadows – Guitar Tango

12. Ray Charles – You Don’t Know Me

13. Little Eva – The Locomotion

14. Shirley Bassey – What Now My Love?

15. Pat Boone – Speedy Gonzales

16. Jet Harris – Theme from The Man With the Golden Arm

17. Duane Eddy – Ballad of Paladin

18. Lonnie Donegan – Pick A Bale of Cotton

19. Mike Sarne with Billie Davis – Will I What

20. Billy Fury – Once Upon A Dream


So this is, from the Beatles’ perspective, the competition. Elvis’ She’s Not You is the King in country-by-numbers mode. Cliff Richard was the biggest thing in UK pop music before the Beatles, but his most convincing hit, Move It, was from 1958 and by 1962 he was doing this rather bombastic cover of Jerry Lee Lewis’ It’ll Be Me, not helped by the song’s ungainly structure. The way I hear it, each verse has two extra beats at the end of every third line to include the title phrase (‘If you hear somebody knocking / on your door / If you see somebody crawlin’ / cross the floor, baby, it’ll be me / and I’ll be lookin’ for you’), which makes the song seem like it’s taking too long to get to the point — not that this has stopped plenty of other people from recording it.

Frank Ifield crops up a lot in the early 60s charts, and is a good example of the kind of musician whose career was destined to be pounded underfoot by the hordes of post-Beatle guitar bands. His yodelling croon was perfectly suited to this kind of widescreen standard. The harmonica-led country-pop arrangement was obviously designed to capitalise on Ifield’s background as an Australian stockman, as close as UK pop had to an authentic cowboy, but I can’t help thinking for all that he sold a lot of records (this one sold a million copies), the melancholy of his material must have seemed a bit stuffy and grown-up, compared to the Beatles’ lusty immediacy. I Remember You, written by Victor Scherzinger and Johnny Mercer, belonged in the 1960s to the kids’ parents’ generation: Dorothy Lamour originally sang it in 1942’s The Fleet’s In. Amusing irony department: The Beatles themselves used to do this song, and it’s featured on their maddeningly elusive Live at the Star Club album from 1977.

Ronnie Carroll’s Roses Are Red is a slice of stodgy Norn Irish country, and presumably well-loved by people who like that kind of thing. Bobby Darin’s Things is entirely forgettable, falling between his earlier finger-snappin’ swing hits and later earnest protest-folk (I mean, come on, who calls a song ‘Things’? It’s like calling a song ‘Stuff’.)

Brian Hyland’s drenchingly minor-key Sealed With A Kiss came as a surprise to me, who only knew his upbeat yet squicky Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini. Again, Sealed With A Kiss sounds way too maudlin for teenagers; instead of lamenting separation from the object of desire, the Beatles preferred to celebrate being in the same room as her (I Saw Her Standing There).

Adam Faith’s turgid Don’t That Beat All is pushed towards the bizarre by a weird scrapy violin part, played as if by the arranger’s illiterate hick cousin. Neil Sedaka’s hit starts ‘Doo doo doo dum doobie-doo dum dum, kama kama dum doobie-doo dum dum, kama kama dum doobie-doo dum dum, breakin’ up is hard too-oo-oo do’, a curiously casual way to talk about the death of love. I’ll admit to a slight grudge against Neil Sedaka, whose 1975 hit Laughter in the Rain will always remind me of being five years old, watching TV, seeing this song on heavy rotation and being both bored and saddened by it — bored because I couldn’t empathise with the emotion, and saddened because it was the first time I realised that music had the power to repel me. (I have to admit that the key-change into the chorus is effective, dammit.) He’s also notable for being someone who had to leave a band before it could become successful, his high school band The Tokens having a hit four years after his departure with The Lion Sleeps Tonight.

Tommy Roe’s Sheila is essentially a riff on Buddy Holly‘s Peggy Sue, down to the softly pattering drum part, but it has some interestingly snarly guitar (by either Wayne Moss or the great Jerry Reed.) In March of the following year, Tommy Roe was unlucky enough to find himself headlining a package tour with Chris Montez, and the Beatles further down the bill. According to Mark Lewisohn’s The Complete Beatles Chronicle, the Beatles so brutally upstaged everyone else that the organisers were forced to place them in the headliners’ slot after the first night of the tour.

The Shadows’ Guitar Tango is nimble faux-Hispanic nonsense. Ray Charles’ You Don’t Know Me, easily the greatest track here, comes from his classic album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, and it may not exactly be country and western, but to paraphrase what Samuel Johnson said of Oliver Goldsmith, Ray Charles touched nothing that he did not adorn. The combination of power and vulnerability in his vocal puts most of the singers in this chart to shame, and the arrangement remains sensibly discreet; even the heavenly choir in the middle eight sounds like it’s taken a step backwards out of respect for Ray Charles’ greatness.

Little Eva does the Locomotion, and there’s just no stopping her; it’s rubbish, it’s silly, it’s naggingly catchy, it’s completely brilliant. Shirley Bassey is equally unstoppable, in her own way, but this too sounds to me like parent music. Pat Boone’s Speedy Gonzales is probably Pat Boone’s finest hour, which isn’t saying much, since Pat is upstaged by his own backing vocalists: session singer Jackie Ward has great fun with the self-consciously idiotic La-la-la’s and, yes, that’s Mel Blanc himself as Speedy, gleefully heaping ethnic stereotype upon ethnic stereotype.

Former Shadows bassist Jet Harris throws himself at a rather tasty surf-flavoured remake of Elmer Bernstein‘s raucous title music from The Man with the Golden Arm — I miss the blaring horns of the original, but in terms of bringing rock bottom-end to jazz sleaze, this is at least dreaming fitfully of the towering Barry Adamson version from 1988. Duane Eddy’s The Ballad of Paladin, however, is an insane (and not in a good way) mashup of knightly nobility, sax sleaze and guitar twang.

Lonnie Donegan makes picking a bale of cotton sound like something we could do right here in the barn, guys! After a minute and a half I want to say, alright, just pick the f***ing cotton, already. Mike Sarne’s Will I What makes my skin crawl, even though it’s a comedy record (with an amazingly sexist punchline). The weird thing is that although Mike Sarne, like John Lennon, was only 22 when this was recorded, he sounds terrifyingly middle-aged. Finally, Billy Fury’s record shows that the initial energy of British rock & roll was, by late 1962, pretty much spent. This isn’t ‘Billy Fury’. This is Ronald Wycherley wondering what’s happening to his career.

So, that’s how things were when Love Me Do first went on sale. Our next post will be about how things looked when it reached its highest point in the charts, no 17, just after Christmas 1962, when Beatle fandom was beginning to break out of the North. In the longer term we’ll be covering Please Please Me, their first major hit, and From Me To You, their first undisputed number 1 single. I’ll look at later singles and early albums if there’s enough enthusiasm for the project, but right now I think that a project like this is likely to be confined by its nature to the first couple of years of the band’s success; after a certain point the singles charts start to look very familiar. (Although it’s still worth checking out the charts from later in the decade: the UK top 20 from late June 1967 contains, besides Procol Harum, The Kinks, The Supremes, The Mamas and Papas and the Jimi Hendrix Experience, also Vince Hill, Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich, Engelbert Humperdinck, the New Vaudeville Band and Topol. And yes, Topol is awesome, but If I Were A Rich Man belongs to the ages, not so much to the summer of ’67.

Hope you enjoyed this snapshot of history. The next one will be along soon. Happy listening.

The Company They Kept: The Beatles’ recordings in context #1

The Beatles and Ambiguity #1

I was putting my daughter to bed the other night and just as I was on my way out of the room she said ‘Dad, why do you like the Beatles so much?’

‘I love their music,’ I said.

‘But why do you love their music?’

‘It makes me feel happy,’ I said. ‘Even when it’s sad, it still makes me feel happy.’

‘But why does it make you feel happy?’ she said, with the grin in her voice of the kid who knows she’s approaching the Explanation Event Horizon. I gave her a last hug and said goodnight.

The question of why the Beatles’ music makes us feel happy is the question at the heart of the Beatles’ greatness, because not all pop music makes us feel happy, nor was meant to. I would speculate that people who despise or dislike the Beatles do so precisely because the Beatles’ music makes them feel happy, which is not how they want to feel. This seems to have been behind the way that American rock critics started to mistrust the Beatles, around about the time of Sgt. Pepper. The USA in 1967 was a far more tense and divided place than the UK in 1967, which is not to say that the UK didn’t have its class divisions, but neither did it have an army festering in Vietnam.

Lester Bangs‘ 1975 rant about the Beatles, ‘Dandelions in Still Air’, is a classic piece of rock writing, not so much because it illuminates the Beatles’ music but because it speaks for the way people began to feel about the Beatles in the mid-1970s. The Beatles have by now traversed the strange abyss by which a cultural phenomenon, valued in its day, passes through a phase of being worthless before gaining more and more value until it’s pretty much unassailably part of the pantheon. Bangs’ essay is a map of the low point in the Beatles’ reputation. What he has to say about them amounts to the idea that, in 1975, it’s not difficult to regard the Beatles as being over with. Their recorded legacy is, he says, ‘a mere annoyance’. The Beatles irritate Bangs because he feels that they stood, at one point, for an ‘unconscious sense of intimacy and community which automatically self-destructed the instant it became self-conscious’, which instant he traces back to ‘the very day we opened up Sgt. Pepper and saw those four smiling moustached faces assuring us with a slightly patronizing benevolence that all was well.’ Bangs can’t abide what he calls the ‘smugness’ of that big photo on the Sgt. Pepper gatefold. For him, as for many Americans, all was not well, and the Beatles claiming that it was didn’t make it so. So what, in Bangs’ view, was the problem?

We can search Bangs’ writings, the funniest and punchiest and most anguished corpus of rock journalism ever created, and we will never find a coherent critique of American society. Bangs tried to give up rock writing on the grounds that ‘writing Allman Brothers reviews was not the proper training for a Spengler‘, but he never managed it; his self-loathing prevented him from realising that in the America of his time, someone who wrote Allman Brothers reviews was almost perfectly placed to be a Spengler. (Greil Marcus being the closest any American rock writer has come to achieving the goal.) The closest Bangs came to a straight statement about the discontent of America was that nobody had real emotions anymore. His prescription for this sickness of the soul amounted to massive amounts of booze and fuzzy guitars. Bangs, it’s fair to say, had a low tolerance for the good humour of the Beatles.

The Beatles are perennially popular and perennially unpopular because the best of their work maintains a tension between aggression and what for want of a better word I’ll call hospitality. Devin McKinney, in his hugely underrated book Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History, noted that the first generation of rock & rollers lacked what the Beatles brought to the game, which was ambiguity. Buddy Holly was inventive, but too polite. Chuck Berry was aggressive, but the songs all sound like each other. Nobody was going to project their fantasies onto cheery journeymen like Carl Perkins and Fats Domino, Elvis got straightened out by the Army and Jerry Lee Lewis was a batshit-insane redneck who married a small girl. It took The Beatles to become the first true pop superstars because they seemed to accommodate every angle. They played harder and with more aggression than anyone else in 1962, but they wore suits and were friendly, funny and cheeky in interviews. The journalist Maureen Cleave, in a February 1963 profile of them at the very outset of Beatlemania, quoted a friend (a ‘Liverpool housewife’) who phrased it perfectly: ‘They look beat up and depraved in the nicest possible way.’

That’s why the Rolling Stones were not a progression beyond the Beatles, but a throwback. The Stones could get away with playing the rebel because the Beatles were charming enough for everyone else, and quicker-witted than any of their contemporaries. When a friendly host like Tommy Smothers attempted to interview The Who, at the outset of their legendary, eardrum-busting appearance on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, you sense that the band wants to come across all laconic and hard but instead they just look like a bunch of tongue-tied amateurs.

When Paul McCartney decided to be the first Beatle to own up to using LSD he ran rings around his interviewer, pointing out that the media were pressuring the band for its own purposes, that ultimately the decision to broadcast his admission was in their hands, and all he was doing was deciding not to lie about it.

The last time the British media behaved as though it had the choice to not broadcast a hot story was when Edward VIII was shagging a married woman.

The Beatles’ instincts were highly unusual in rock music. They wanted everyone on their side, not just one sector of the market. That’s why Sgt Pepper is perhaps their greatest album; it balances their intention better than any other, and the reason US critics tended not to agree is that, from an American perspective, the summer of 1967 was not a time for balance but a time, as the MC5 put it a couple of years later, ‘for each and every of you to decide whether you are gonna be the problem, or whether you are gonna be the solution.’

The Beatles tended not to think like this. Even when Lennon attempted to steer them in the direction of revolution — on, well, ‘Revolution’ — he first of all hedged his bets, singing ‘You can count me out . . . in . . .’ on the White Album’s ‘Revolution 1’, and changing it definitively to ‘out’ on the far more raucous single version, which was recorded later. He then confused matters even more when the band came to mime the song to his live vocal for a promotional film; he clearly adds an ‘in’ that isn’t on the record (0:51). Talk about fence-sitting. And yet this tendency to qualify, to add ambiguity, is one of the greatest strengths in the Beatles’ recordings and is one of the reasons why they now seem to exist in a sort of timeless Beatles era, an alternate universe from the actual 1960s, whereas something like Buffalo Springfield’s ‘For What It’s Worth’ seems to belong far more to its own era. (This is probably because it’s been used in way more documentaries about the 60s than the Beatles’ music has, which in turn is probably for licensing reasons. Other 60s rock & pop music is used to illustrate footage about the 60s; the Beatles’ music is used to illustrate footage about the Beatles.)

More ongoing meditations on the Beatles in future posts, I’m sure.

The Beatles and Ambiguity #1