Recently, John Lennon would have celebrated his 75th birthday. This is reason enough to have a look at his musical oeuvre and that of the group that made him famous: The Beatles.
In the 1960s, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr experienced their way to fame, and they grew from good-looking fine musicians to the best that modern music had to offer. Their early songs are by-the-book love songs, well executed and still fine today – but not memorable. In the late 1960s, they explored new ways to go and produced revolutionary music. Never again has music been so well done: new sounds, experimental designs, all kinds of styles, fine lyrics – and still: awesome to hear today. The Beatles have stood the test of time. By 1970, they had evolved so far as to seek new ways for themselves as well, and the group split up. None of the four ever came back to the top level at which they had been together, even though they tried it independently.
I myself have had a phase of discovering the Beatles several years ago. Before that, I was vaguely aware of them and of course I knew those songs that everyone knows: Yesterday, She Loves You, Yellow Submarine, Let it Be. All well and good, but I wasn’t caught. Then, out of the blue, I tried to find out about the fuss about the White Album: many people talk about it, it’s quoted in several movies – so, what’s the deal?
The White Album (which is actually called “The Beatles”) was a shock of many sorts. It is long: it has 30 tracks, and it can’t be put in a category. There are all kinds of styles, from gems (Revolution 1, Julia), fine rock (Helter Skelter), down to the weird (Glass Onion, Bungalow Bill, Piggies) and the abyss (Revolution 9). It was the very wrong album to go to in the first place – without background knowledge, I couldn’t make heads or tails of it. Later, when I returned to it, I knew how it came to be: that would shift my appreciation of the whole album a lot. I’ll return to that later.
The famous samplers which are appropriately called “the Red Album” and “the Blue Album” proved to be better as a starting point. From them, I got a survey of what the Beatles have achieved in musical terms. The Red Album, covering the first half of their career as a band, starts off with the rather uninteresting love songs (even though those are fine songs, don’t get me wrong). The real deal comes halfway through: songs like Norwegian Wood, Nowhere Man, Girl and We Can Work it Out nearly flashed me. Awesome stuff. Ticket To Ride is one of my very favorite songs ever and I shall wish that In My Life be played at my funeral. All these songs really touched me, both the lyrics and the music. For the most part they are still rather conventional, but you can already see the band grasping new ideas and trying things out (I’ll just name the Indian sitar that George plays instead of a guitar).
Those songs pushed me to the original albums on which they were released in the first place: with Rubber Soul and Revolver the Beatles really have their kick-off. Both albums have been highly influenced by drug abuse, but the music that came from there is amazing. Here, There and Everywhere has been named a favorite by both John and Paul in retrospect; Tomorrow Never Knows is an experience in weird music effects that obviously is a milestone in what can be done in a studio – I wouldn’t name it as a favorite of mine, but I can hear the genius there (and the line from the title of this posting is taken from Tomorrow Never Knows). Of course, it is songs like these that made The Beatles stop having concert tours, since the music was no longer reproducible on a live stage.
After that, they published the first so-called concept album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Actually, there is very little holding the album together apart from the intro and the outro (which was defining this concept anyway for later bands). One can already distinguish the very different roads that the group was taking, but they managed to assemble a great set of songs here (many of which then found their way to the Blue Album as they could be considered as highlights). This is my personally favorite album, and not just because of the cover. Here originated the gems like Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds, She’s Leaving Home, A Day in the Life and For the Benefit of Mr. Kite. Especially A Day in the Life is one of the finest examples of how John and Paul worked together to produce astonishing music: this is actually a sampler of several snippets of musical and lyrical ideas of both, and none of those snippets really kicked in to make them a stand-alone song. But John and Paul connected those bits to a masterpiece. As a side-note: as long as The Beatles were a working group, John’s and Paul’s songs were always labelled as “Lennon/McCartney”, no matter who really wrote them.
Two Songs that have only been released as singles are about as old as Sgt. Pepper, again, two favorites of mine: Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane. Remarkably, they have never been listed No.1 in the single charts (thus breaking a long row of Beatles’ singles that came out top in the lists) – but it was a close call. Since they could not agree which of the songs should have been the A side, it was labelled a double A side and the sales numbers were split half for both songs, which made it still to rank 2 and 3 of the charts. Those songs are highly introspective of John and Paul with rich, sometimes nearly unintelligible lyrics – and yet they can always cheer me up when I listen to them. I have listened to both these songs countless times and they are fresh every single time. When I discovered the Beatles, I learned a lot about what technical details make Strawberry Fields work and yet there is more to it. The magic still works today. In his last interview, John said he would re-do many of his songs if given the chance, reflecting all of his experiences – “especially Strawberry Fields”. It must have been a very special song for him, and it is most special for me.
Now, we return to the White Album. Having learnt about the whereabouts of the Beatles until 1968, I could understand a lot more of this, and appreciate it, too. The reason for its huge size is that the group had developed enough conflict with one another that no-one agreed on dropping one of his own songs – so instead of having one album with purely amazing music, the ended up with a double feature of all kinds of stuff. In particular, had I purchased this album in 1968, I would have either thought my record-player was broken or that Lennon/McCartney had gone insane. The second-to-last song is Revolution 9, a highly experimental, avant-garde piece: no lyrics, just tapes being wound forward and backward, time and again being tuned up in volume to yield a mixture of indescribable effects – very strange. But, Lord help me, I spent some time thinking about this, and this is not chaos. John has thought hard and deep about this, there is a lot of structure there (for instance, the “Number 9” text appears strictly at the start of each full minute) and it tells a story (just using a very unusual way), apparently one of war and peace and without telling it straight from start to finish but jumping through time. Even though I can hear my way through this by now, it is somewhat unsettling to hear it and to listen to John and George reading what seem to be random lines from newspapers in an apparently random fashion. Not to mention Yoko Ono talking about being naked (at least she has no singing verse as in Bungalow Bill).
As I mention Yoko Ono: the different development of the group members is today often connected to her name. She is supposed to be the women who brought the Beatles down. Well, she wasn’t. But she wasn’t totally innocent either. In the end, she was the perfect wife for John, she saw in him the artist and not the star, being an artist herself. When you look at pictures of the couple, they really look happy. So: no bad feelings about Yoko.
The White Album has had a huge influence on popular culture and beyond. Sadly, Charles Manson had put the thought in his mind to seek inspiration in the lyrics of the White Album (in particular from Revolution, Piggies and Helter Skelter), from which the Beatles obviously distanced themselves. If the Beatles ever had a common message, it was a peaceful one. Especially John and George tried to use their influence to bring more peace and less suffering to the world.
Their final musical project as a group was Abbey Road, and you can tell it has been crafted to say good-bye. Many consider the medley on Abbey Road a masterpiece (I, personally, don’t – it’s a sample of tiny ideas that didn’t grow to be complete songs), and you will find some fine music in it, such as Octupus’ Garden or Here Comes the Sun. Legend has it that the album should have been called Everest and the cover would have shown the group on top of the Mount Everest – but Ringo Starr objected to it because he didn’t want to travel around the world for this one picture. Instead he suggested “We might as well call it Abbey Road or whatever this street is called”. Hence originated one of the most famous album covers in the history of music – spontaneously within ten minutes and without a larger concept. Later, this cover really sparked the ideas of “Paul is dead”, but I won’t even address this here.
The final album Let It Be has been made after the fact, if you will: the group had already split and their producer used the existing unpublished tapes to make an album of it. Many things have been contrary to the wishes of the Beatles themselves (such as the choir in The Long and Winding Road), and Let It Be feels already strange when I listen to it. But it does contain footage from the legendary last rooftop concert that had to be stopped by the police, since traffic broke down around the place. So, it has some historical value, if nothing else.
After their break-up, each Beatle tried to be an independent musician. Only John succeeded and brought the unforgettable song Imagine to the world (next to some more avant-garde together with Yoko). In 1980, he was shot, aged 40. I will not mention the name of his murderer, since this person shot John to make his own name eternally remembered – this is the best reason not to memorize this name.
Paul had been the best songwriter of the group, at least as far as the mainstream songs go. Each of the songs I mentioned at the begining (those that I knew even before I got acquainted with the Beatles) have been written by Paul. Today, it’s different: when I think of my favorite Beatles’ songs, I think of Strawberry Fields, In My Life, Nowhere Man and others – all of which are John’s songs. Paul never got back to his top performances as a solo artist. Possibly, he lacked his counterpart John, they pushed each other to new highs as long as they worked on common projects, and they tried to switch each other’s styles (for instance in Helter Skelter, Paul tried to make a rock song similar to John’s Revolution).
George seems to be the Beatle that I have least to say about (especially considering that I only scratched the surface of what I have in mind about John and Paul). This is sad, in a way, since he really pushed the boundaries of what was done in western music these days. His ideas of Indian instruments and many great compositions make the later Beatles songs really wonderful. But he could never step out of the shadow of his band-mates.
Ringo was the last member to join the band, and in the end, he was “only” the drummer. Apart from Ringo and Phil Collins, no drummer ever got famous (most bands even switch their drummer from time to time – I know of hardly any case in which they switch their lead singers). Musically, he was quite limited, but the band always managed to write one song for each album in which Ringo would be the lead singer. This has two effects: Ringo actually grew better and the songs are rather easy-going, so you can sing along really nicely: Yellow Submarine, With a Little Help From my Friends and Octopus’ Garden are plainly wonderful songs. Besides, Ringo was a catalyst for many ideas of the other three: the songs Tomorrow Never Knows and A Hard Day’s Night were inspired by him. Phil Collins once considered Ringo to be a vastly underrated musician and one of the best drummers ever (and he must know it), and the other Beatles knew what they had with him – even though John once said sarcastically that Ringo might not be the best drummer in the world, he might not even be the best drummer in the band (since Paul had played the drums on some tracks in Ringo’s absence).
Some people have been called the 5th Beatle, having been part of the band earlier or having had some significant influence on them. In Hamburg, the place where their career started, there is even a statue for the Beatles including Stuart Sutcliffe who had been with them these days (and who was the first to wear the remarkable Beatles haircut of their early days).
There is so much more that you could say about the Beatles, about their music, where they came from and where they went – but I can’t hope for completeness and so I shall stop here. All I can do is to strongly encourage everyone to listen to their music. They are in there, and quality has no age.