Friday, August 19, 2005

The Consensus of the Century
How The Beatles captured everybody's imagination

"Ladies and gentlemen - The Beatles!"

The deafening hysteria that greeted this announcement is now legendary. These 4 young men from Liverpool, England achieved a level of popularity that has never been touched this century, indeed in human history. Amazingly though, they were also among the most creative entities the world has ever seen. Popularity and genius never had a better marriage.

The Beatles recorded 186 songs in 8 years (1962-70). They released 11 studio albums in all, each one a veritable classic, each one a progression from the last one. Their songs perfectly captured the spirit of its times, coincidentally also the most culturally vibrant decade of the century. New ideas were explored in the sixties, new paths traversed, like never before or since. Pop music, comprehensively revolutionised, became an art form, primarily because of the phenomenal creative impetus The Beatles kept on giving it throughout the decade. They were the first pop group to write their own songs. And the songs somehow appealed to aesthetes and the lowest common denominator alike. Their peers worshipped them; even famed musicians of other genres (their most likely critics) like Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copeland praised their work. By changing popular music and popular culture, by default The Beatles really did change the world. An impact that wasn't just felt in the western hemisphere. Our own R.D. Burman, for example, was highly influenced by The Beatles and sixties rock 'n roll. We all know the role he played in shaping Hindi film music.

The early Beatles story is folklore now. On 6th July 1957, Paul McCartney met John Lennon during a village fete where Lennon's skiffle group Quarry Men was performing. Both were impressed by the other's musical skills. The younger George Harrison came through McCartney on the strength of his "raunchy" guitar-playing. His "audition" for Lennon was held on the empty top deck of a double-decker bus. Along with drummer Pete Best, they called themselves The Beatles, and were subsequently booked to play in Hamburg. They came back penniless in December 1960 and continued playing at various Liverpool clubs. Meanwhile, a customer walked into a local record store and asked for a Tony Sheridan recording backed by The Beatles in Hamburg. The store manager, Brian Epstein, didn't have it in stock. He ordered it, heard it, loved it and went to one of The Beatles' performances. Enraptured, he offered to manage them. They agreed. After a bit of a struggle, in June 1962, The Beatles were finally signed on by EMI. Ringo Starr replaced the inadequate Pete Best. The rest, put mildly, is history.

The Beatles' music can be divided into 3 distinct phases - Adolescence, Maturity and Adulthood. They gradually progressed through each phase just like a human being does, though on a different time-scale, of course. Their work in each phase was stunningly innovative and brilliant. Taken together, it was superhuman.

Adolescence (1962-65): includes the albums Please Please Me, With The Beatles, A Hard Day's Night, Beatles For Sale and Help

Lennon had once stood at a 4th-storey window and exclaimed to McCartney, "Wouldn't it be fascinating to jump from here and experience the feeling of falling? Come on, let's jump!" McCartney said, "No, you jump, then tell me how it felt". This true story demonstrates beautifully the difference in the personalities of the band's songwriters. Lennon believed in first-hand experience, he wanted to express his own feelings through song. McCartney, conversely, had a novelist's mindset - he liked inventing characters and situations, viewing them often as a third party. This was partly the reason for Lennon's ironic cynicism and McCartney's upbeat optimism. What bound them together was the love of rock 'n roll, a dislike of authority and the pain of having lost their mothers early. "Lennon-McCartney" became a legendary songwriting credit all right, but it was a bit of a misnomer. They essentially wrote their own songs and whoever wrote it, sung it. Of course, they contributed to each other's songs - a lyric here, a refrain there, sometimes even a counterpoint. And ultimately, all 4 Beatles made the songs come alive, whoever wrote them. People who knew them at this point were struck by how close they seemed, how tightly-knit they were. They understood each other almost instinctively, almost telepathically. They were, as McCartney said, "four parts of the same person". Harrison's guitar-work and Starr's drumming had their own special place in the magic. As did their exuberant harmony-singing that was fresh and unique. "Love Me Do", their first single, was reasonably successful. Then, with "Please Please Me" the floodgates opened. "From Me To You", "She Loves You", "I Want To Hold Your Hand", "A Hard Day's Night", "I Feel Fine", "Eight Days A Week", "Ticket To Ride", "Help" and "Yesterday" were all comprehensive chart-toppers.

It was the ignorance of musical conventions that helped The Beatles the most. For example, they were spectacularly innovative when it came to chord progressions, simply because they did not know any better! Their musical unorthodoxy propelled them into directions unthought-of, onto paths never traveled upon. The innovativeness, however, did not extend to the lyrics. At this stage, they just wanted to get their "sound" right, the words were not important as long as they didn't come in the way. Almost all their songs at this stage were straightforward love songs, yet with a spontaneous, joyous feel that was never maudlin. It was this avoidance of sentimentality (that most of pop was riddled with then) which became the key factor to their freshness. Interestingly, their passion and intensity was most keenly felt on the cover versions they did, particularly "Twist And Shout", "Money" and "Rock And Roll Music". They actually out-performed the originals here, a very rare thing indeed. By mid-1965, The Beatles had the world at their feet. Amazingly, it was merely the beginning. The highly precocious child was still flowering.

Maturity (1965-66): includes the albums Rubber Soul and Revolver

Bob Dylan's songs from across the Atlantic made The Beatles think about more than just their sound. They began to expand their frontiers lyrically and thematically. Ironically, at the very moment The Beatles were changing their approach, Dylan was changing his - he was moving towards the electric sound of The Byrds, who in turn had been inspired by The Beatles! Everybody would gain.

In September 1965, The Beatles returned from an exhausting American tour to the news that they had to finish an album in 2 months, as per their contract. Both Lennon and McCartney found themselves really pushed for time, but strangely their songwriting actually thrived under the pressure. Within a month, they had written, recorded and produced their new album, which was far from ordinary qualitatively. In fact, Rubber Soul was hailed as the greatest pop album ever when it was released. Lennon's "In My Life" cut deeper than anything The Beatles had done till now. Harrison played sitar for the first time on Lennon's "Norwegian Wood" (Harrison had heard Ravi Shankar for the first time recently and "it had just felt so familiar"). On "We Can Work It Out", both Lennon and McCartney collaborated as equals. McCartney's "Drive My Car" was a story-song, with a punchline. Lennon's "Girl" and McCartney's "Michelle" demonstrated their sighing, gentle sides. The strides the band had taken were very evident.

Within months, Revolver bettered Rubber Soul. By now, Lennon was addicted to LSD and true to character, it showed in the songs. "Tomorrow Never Knows", with its chaotic, hallucinatory feel was the quintessential "drug song". "I'm Only Sleeping" was similarly trippy (and autobiographical), though more melodic. Harrison at last came into his own as a songwriter with the witty "Taxman" and the enigmatic sitar song "Love You Too". Starr sung the nursery-rhymish "Yellow Submarine", that became hugely popular. McCartney came up with "For No One" - a beautiful, sophisticated love song. But his greatest triumph was the stunning "Eleanor Rigby", arranged by their producer George Martin, who used violins, violas and cellos to underscore a melancholic, thoughtful lyric that even touched upon death. "Eleanor Rigby" was their greatest triumph yet and The Beatles hadn't played a note on it!

With Revolver, The Beatles didn't just come of age, they reached their peak. They would never surpass this album, but then, neither would anyone else.

Adulthood (1966-70): includes the albums Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Beatles (White Album), Let It Be, Abbey Road

Years of touring had taken its toll on The Beatles. The screaming was so loud that they couldn't even hear themselves play. Fed up with the pressures, The Beatles - particularly Lennon and Harrison, just refused to take it anymore. They put an end to touring and concentrated wholly on creating songs in the studio.

Lennon's "Strawberry Fields Forever" was the first track they did after this decision. Even now considered the greatest rock song ever, it combined Lennon's childhood Liverpool memories with his present drug-altered mind. Stunningly expressive, it spurred on the healthy competition between him and McCartney. The latter immediately came up with "Penny Lane", where he combined his childhood longings with his breezy melodic gift. George Martin's innovative production of both these songs began a new era in recording history. The world's collective jaw dropped in awe. Again, this was just the beginning.

There was another interesting "competition" going on between The Beatles and The Beach Boys. The latter's album Pet Sounds was their response to Rubber Soul. Though The Beatles had released Revolver after that, they still saw their next album as their "answer" to Pet Sounds, which The Beatles, particularly McCartney, rated very highly. Likewise, McCartney had a new idea for the entire album. He wanted to submerge their identity as The Beatles, in favour of a conceptual band, and have related themes throughout. While collecting all the cultural icons of the time in one place. The others went ahead with the idea, but discarded it mid-way as Lennon felt it was limiting their creativity. So at one stage half the songs were part of a concept album, half were individual, self-sufficient pieces. The brilliant George Martin (whom many called "the 5th Beatle") however gave the songs a holistic treatment, and they all somehow became part of the same soundscape.

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band was a great album, but also overrated. This contradiction arose because all the songs weren't brilliant, their presentation was. The innovations and creativity that made the songs come alive were truly pathbreaking. There were two indisputably great songs on the album though - McCartney's touchingly compassionate "She's Leaving Home" and Lennon's brilliant "LSD-perception" song "A Day In The Life". Sgt. Pepper has been credited with "changing Western Civilisation" - an overstatement perhaps, but not entirely untrue. The album played in every corner of the world and The Beatles were household names everywhere. The Beach Boys' frontman Brian Wilson suffered a breakdown when Sgt. Pepper was released, and never fully recovered his creative powers thereafter.

The Beatles reaffirmed their pre-eminent cultural position by preparing a song for BBC's One World global TV broadcast viewed by a record 400 million audience worldwide. The song "All You Need Is Love" - a Lennon composition, captured the sixties spirit better than anything else. It also marked the beginning of the sing-along anthem that much of rock would soon be identified with.

Thereafter, events took a sharp turn in The Beatles' history. Their beloved manager Brian Epstein died, their Magical Mystery Tour film flopped (despite a fine soundtrack, including the Lewis Carroll - inspired brilliant "protest" song "I Am The Walrus"), Harrison got more and more into Indian music and spirituality (he even recorded a basic track in Bombay for "The Inner Light" with Hariprasad Chaurasia, Shivkumar Sharma, Ashish Khan and Mahapurush Mishra), the others - particularly Lennon, got deeply into Indian spirituality through Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. In February 1968, The Beatles and their wives came to Rishikesh to the Maharishi's Himalayan Meditation Centre.. This was significant because transcendental meditation and the cool mountain air played a big part in changing their mindset, at least for a while. They were also LSD-free here, and this made them phenomenally prolific. Between them, they wrote about 30 new songs in Rishikesh. Starr and McCartney left within a month but Harrison and Lennon stayed for over 3 months. They too finally left, disillusioned and dissatisfied. Lennon soon wrote a song about the Maharishi called "Sexy Sadie", which was just so typically ironic of him.

The Beatles went back to their irregular lifestyle in London, while recording a lot of the "India songs" and others in what would be known as "the White Album". The Beatles was a sprawling, immensely varied, utterly brilliant double album that once again stunned the world. (Some, like George Martin, felt that it should have been a single, more consistent album, rather than such an erratic double. Interestingly, those people still cannot agree on which tracks the single album should've had - thus justifying the decision to have released a double album.) Lennon produced autobiographic expressions like "Julia", "I'm So Tired" and "Yer Blues" and whimsical stunners like "Happiness Is A Warm Gun". McCartney came up with melodic beauties like "Martha My Dear", "Mother Nature's Son" and "Blackbird" and rockers like "Back In The USSR". Harrison contributed "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" (in which Eric Clapton guested) and the highly underrated, unbelievably beautiful "Long Long Long" (about an exhausted reconciliation with God). Most of these were actually written in Rishikesh, but given form in London. Even Starr wrote a song ("Don't Pass Me By") and gave lead vocals on "Good Night". The Beatles had grown up. Lennon, McCartney and Harrison were all asserting their own manifestos. For all their immaculate musicianship, this was the album from where The Beatles began diverging. The album sounded as if 3-4 separate (and brilliant) individuals had pooled their material together. Yet, the finished product was so magnificent that it reactivated their sense-of-pride as a band outside the haze of recording-induced cabin fever that was producing an "I quit" threat a week.

Meanwhile, the McCartney-authored masterpiece "Hey Jude" became the biggest-selling US single of all time. The "community singing" at the end of the song (and "Hello Goodbye" before this) also contributed greatly towards the origins of the rock anthem. The Lennon-McCartney rivalry was still healthy, as far as the music went anyway.

It was Lennon who provided the idea for the new album. He wanted The Beatles to do an "honest" album, with a live sound, without the overdubs and edits they'd gotten so used to. Everybody warmed up to the idea and unknowingly they embarked on the Let It Be (then called the "Get Back" project) fiasco - the final nail on The Beatles coffin. The Beatles gradually realised that they were now temperamentally unsuited to execute the "honest playing" concept. Impatient and unmotivated to achieve requisite perfection, they couldn't handle the repeated rehearsals that graduated to full-scale rows. Yoko Ono's continual presence alongside Lennon (even in the studio) irritated the others, who considered her an intruder to their domain. Lennon's drug-sodden weirdness was going out of hand. McCartney and Harrison began to have serious ego clashes. Finally, The Beatles did a 3-song impromptu (and now legendary) concert on the rooftop of Apple Studios, before abandoning the Let It Be project for the moment.

The end was nigh. Financial disputes and legal wrangles further rocked the already sinking boat. Finally, The Beatles set out to do one last album - the "old way". The album that became Abbey Road was marked by a joyous, liberated, even celebratory feel balanced by an unsentimental sadness. All four knew this was going to be the last one. The 2 best songs in the album were, amazingly, Harrison's compositions ("Something" - called "the finest love song of the last 50 years" by none other than Frank Sinatra, and "Here Comes The Sun") - making a mockery of the 2-song-quota he'd been given over the years. Lennon sparkled with "Come Together" and "I Want You (She's So Heavy)". Starr wrote the cute "Octopus's Garden". But it was McCartney who brought the album together. Besides the gorgeous "Oh! Darling", he was also responsible for the idea of the Long Medley of unfinished fragments of their tunes - the pick of which were his. "You Never Give Me Your Money" and "Golden Slumbers" with their moving tones of regret would not leave a Beatles fan dry-eyed. "The Weight"(Boy/ You're gonna carry that weight/ a long time) and "The End" (And in the end/ the love you take/ is equal to the love you make) tellingly brought down the curtain.

How this album came to be called Abbey Road was typical of The Beatles. Throughout their career, they'd deliberately cultivated randomness in their thinking - later even more accentuated by LSD. A stray remark, a casually-noticed newspaper headline or TV commercial…things like this tended to make their way into Beatles songs, often without any apparent meaning. In fact, they took a perverse delight in misleading "intellectual" critics thus. (For example, Lennon made a mistake while recording "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away" by singing a line as "feeling two foot small" instead of "two foot tall". Mischievously, he insisted on keeping it unchanged to "confuse the pseuds".) Here, the working title of this final album was "Everest". When the time came to design the sleeve, it was suggested that The Beatles fly down to the Himalayas for the picture. Sod it, they said, we'll walk in front of this studio, take the damn picture and call it "Abbey Road" (the name of the studio). Inspiration or laziness, take your pick.

Let It Be was remixed by the famed Phil Spector and released just after The Beatles formally split-up. This became their swan-song thus. Though flawed somewhat (largely due to terrible mixes of some tracks where Spector's injudicious "romantic" orchestrations injected a mushiness The Beatles had steadfastly avoided throughout their career), it had some absolutely stunning songs. Primarily, it was McCartney's triumph, who besides the classic title track, also wrote the exquisite "The Long And Winding Road" (even Spector's unimaginative treatment couldn't kill its inherent beauty) and the breezy "Get Back". "Two Of Us", also by him, provided the moving moment of Lennon and McCartney seeming to merge their voices and spirits together…though the song was really about McCartney and his wife Linda. And "I've Got A Feeling" became the last time Lennon and McCartney combined two ideas in one song. Harrison's "I Me Mine" was also on the album - ironically the last recorded Beatles song. Ironic, because the main reason for The Beatles splitting-up was the fact that Lennon, McCartney and Harrison had all become their own men, with their own motivations, their own agendas.

It's sad that four young men capable of so much beauty were not infallible to the inherent pettiness of human nature. They'd loved each other dearly before, but now they couldn't stand the sight of each other. The bane of adulthood. But the magic theyproduced together is replicated maybe once a century. The three Anthology sets released in 1995-96 proved their undying popularity yet again. Though the "new songs" were just 2 rough Lennon demos remixed by Jeff Lynn the ELO way (with the 3 Beatles overdubbing new parts), both "Free As A Bird" and "Real Love" were really very fine songs. Yet, many fans and critics were unable to enjoy them because they'd moronically expected the "new songs" to match their classics. Otherwise, Anthology's collection of out-takes and alternate versions was a mixed bag. Anthology 1 was predictable and totally avoidable. Anthology 2 and particularly Anthology 3 had some very interesting moments. For example, the Anthology versions of "Across The Universe", "The Long And Winding Road" (both mauled by Spector on Let It Be), "Ob-La'Di, Ob-La-Da" (a lovely jaunty guitar arrangement) and "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" were all better than what had been released earlier. Then, there were unused songs that eventually made the solo albums of their authors in the seventies (like McCartney's "Junk" and Harrison's superb "All Things Must Pass"). Ultimately, Anthology demonstrated the genesis of genius effectively.

The possibility that The Beatles would get back together one day was rudely extinguished by Lennon's assassination in 1980. The large-scale mourning wasn't just for Lennon's death. Everyone realised that The Beatles had also died with him. If John Lennon was alive today, I think The Beatles would be together (they'd thawed towards each other considerably by 1980). And even if they couldn't be as consistent as they were in the sixties, they would probably still be producing occasional works of sheer genius well beyond the millennium. Expressing our times, their own ages and universal truths.

And we'd all have a little more to look forward to.


Please Please Me:
Inspired by an old Bing Crosby hit, John wrote this song at his Aunt Mimi's house. The Beatles rehearsed it in the studio first at a much slower tempo, with a high-pitch lead vocal a la Roy Orbison. George Martin insisted that the song be speeded up. They complied. After the final take, Martin pressed the control room intercom button and said, "Congratulations, gentlemen, you've just made your first Number One!"
Recorded on 11th September 1962.

Paul woke up one morning with this tune running through his head. He stumbled to a piano to work it out, using "scrambled eggs" as his lead-in lyric (which later became "yesterday"). Unable to believe that a tune like this would just come in a dream, he was worried that he'd subconsciously lifted the tune from somewhere. Only when he was convinced that was not the case, he recorded it. Till date, it is the most covered song in the history of music.
Recorded on 14th June 1965.

Nowhere Man:
John had been awake the whole night trying to write a song for the new album, to no avail. He finally gave up the struggle near dawn. Amazingly, almost immediately, his subconscious took over, and the song just occurred to him. As a song, this was uncharacteristic Lennon, but one of his best. Drugs, no doubt, featured in its creation too.
Recorded on 21-22 October 1965.

She Said She Said:
John was taking LSD with Roger McGuinn and David Crosby of The Byrds in Los Angeles. Suddenly, actor Peter Fonda burst onto the scene and insisted on telling John about the hospital operation during which he'd had a near-death experience. "I know what it's like to be dead," Fonda said. John had him thrown out but the encounter stayed with him. It became one of the best songs on Revolver.
Recorded on 21st June 1966.

With A Little Help From My Friends:
There was pressure to finish the new album. Paul came to John's house with some chords in mind, and the two doodled away at a piano, randomly singing whatever came to their minds. They even picked up strands of the conversation between their friends in the same room. They laughed, flipped through magazines, played other songs… but all the time trying to get that elusive thought down. This trance-like state that brought the subconscious into play really worked for them. This was no exception, though they made Ringo sing this one.
Recorded on 29-30 March 1967.

Hey Jude:
Paul was driving down to meet Cynthia, John's estranged wife. He was fond of her and felt bad that things had come to this pass. He began to think of what he'd say to 5-year-old Julian Lennon. "Hey Jules, don't make it bad, take a sad song and make it better" came to him instantly. Later, he demo-d it on a piano and played it to John, who called it the best song Paul ever wrote.
Recorded on 29-31 July 1968.

Dear Prudence:
Actress Mia Farrow's sister Prudence was in Rishikesh with The Beatles and their wives. Excessive meditation had made her hypersensitive and she was most reluctant to leave the small hut where she was staying. John and George had to coax her out. John even made this song out of it, using the finger-picking guitar style.
Recorded on 28-30 August 1968.

Let It Be:
Paul had tried everything to keep The Beatles alive but everything was disintegrating around him. Distressed and insecure about their future as a band, he was becoming an insomniac. But finally one night, he slept well, and he had a dream in which his dead mother Mary appeared and told him to relax, to just let things be. Yet again, Paul turned a dream into a celebrated song.
Recorded on 25-31 January 1969.

Here Comes The Sun:
George was walking around in Eric Clapton's garden alone. The sun was out and he was gently strumming his guitar. He knew The Beatles were about to break up. But the last few months had been so stressful and cantankerous that he felt distinctly liberated about the prospect. The seventies would soon be here, with fresh beginnings to be made. These thoughts and the warmth of the sun made him feel optimistic. And then he hit upon the intro.
Recorded on 7-19 August 1969.

Jaideep Varma
November 1999


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like this summary of the Beatle's work, interesting info too. One thing I'd like to suggest you might want to change: LSD is not addictive.

11:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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10:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous 1 about LSD: Ah, anonymous, that's hardly surprising. When it comes to things like drugs, even the more discerning among us tend to resort to stereotyped perception.

12:36 PM  

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