A Fortnightly Review.
Peter Jackson, dir. | Streaming | Disney Plus
By ALAN WALL.
THE BEATLES AND condescension. I fell in love with the Beatles when I was twelve and I have had to listen to people condescending to them all my life. At university, I was informed that it was cool to like the Stones; uncool to dig the fab four. Well, I was uncool then and I continue to be uncool now. I reckon the Beatles were one of the most effective and compelling bands in the history of popular music. If anyone thinks that’s an easy thing to be, they should lay down their pens for a month or two, and try it.
One old friend of mine who hailed from Merseyside but had immigrated to academia once told me that ‘they could have taken any averagely talented four guys from Liverpool and turned them into the Beatles.’ I sometimes think this might be the stupidest remark I have ever heard, and I have heard a few. The statement exhibits a cultural deafness characteristic of a certain species of academic. People whose fame relies upon a couple of remote articles in even more remote journals think themselves superior to the Liverpool band who wrote and performed some of the greatest songs ever heard. That’s popular culture, you see. Doesn’t rank with our polysyllabic pronouncements in the logosphere. Their songs don’t even have footnotes. Not sure the pitiable wretches had even read a word of Derrida. Still on about love all the time, the poor darlings.
Popular culture versus the other sort. Mmmm. Gets tricky, this. Another academic I knew once boomed at me (he was the booming sort of academic) that the Beatles can’t have been that good: none of them had any proper training in music. This is true. None of them could (or can) read music. None of them had a degree in the subject. I pointed out to this egregious boomer that Robert Greene mocked Shakespeare because Greene had a degree; he was a university wit. He called Shakespeare an upstart crow. Just didn’t have the education, you see. No scrolls on his office wall. But oddly enough, it’s Shakespeare we read these days, not Greene. And it is the Beatles we listen to, rather than reading the boomer’s essays. Funny old world, innit?
It is all so terribly confused. The Beatles were a focus at the centre of a changing world. Just track the way they dressed between 1963 and 1968. A whole world came and went in those five years. A world whose rooms filled up with reefer fogs and a pharmacopeia of pills. One substance in particular which, taken on a lump of sugar, turned the world upside down and inside out. The Beatles were introduced to LSD by George’s dentist, who gave him a blast without informing him, which seemed to be taking dental hygiene to previously unknown lengths. George drove home that night at ten miles an hour, vividly aware of how crowded the world had suddenly become. John dropped acid every day for several months. He really was chasing that ‘total deregulation of the senses’ of which Rimbaud spoke in his famous 1871 letter to Paul Demeny. Lennon wanted the world to hit him differently, and hit him differently it did. ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ might have been the closest he came to conveying the difference, but he always insisted the recording came nowhere near his original conception. It is still the nearest we have to a genuine Surrealist popular song.
George was blunt: they all wanted to go mad anyway, and we provided the excuse they wanted. All of that screaming and fainting does seem weird enough, even now. Blokes didn’t do it, of course. Mass hysteria was a term much bandied about, though it answers as little now as it did when Meredith Willson coined ‘massteria’ for The Music Man in 1957. The fab four appeared on stage and started to sing. The minute the mopheads shook their hair and wailed Whooo, whole concertfuls of pubescent girls had prompt orgasms, yelling frantically as they went. Go figure. It seemed as though decades of repression finally found an exit through the Beatles: through their music and their humour. Yell loud enough, of course, and you wouldn’t be able to make out either. After a bit, the Beatles got understandably fed up with it all. They weren’t the greatest musicians in the world, but they were musicians. Making music was what they wanted to do. Not much point making music if no one can hear a note of it as you play.
Watching Get Back for the better part of nine hours brings home how astonishingly good they were at getting their chops together, and what an amazing band they were at their best. On the roof of the Apple building in 1968 they really blew London away. We watch as they put their stuff together. I for one found it astounding how they assembled songs, bit by bit, rhythm by rhythm, out of scraps and notions. ‘Don’t let me down’ I had always assumed to be Lennon’s solo cry of hope in despair, but I was wrong. Here we see how they all get involved in constructing it. McCartney demonstrates an improvisatory genius on the piano. He also magics ‘Get Back’ out of nothing by strumming (yes folks, strumming) on his bass guitar. I’d never heard anyone strumming a bass guitar before. And Ringo surely shows himself to be the least obtrusively omnicompetent drummer you could wish for.
All the while Yoko wanders about, quiet and forlorn. She commits the mortal sin of sitting on Paul’s amp, but otherwise is silent if ubiquitous. John evidently needs her the way a fish needs water. He will not be separated. Paul can get very bossy, and at one point George leaves the Beatles. Had enough of being told what’s what by McCartney. But they manage to cajole him back. In the meantime John has fashioned the lead guitar for ‘Get Back’, one of the band’s best leads ever. The curious thing is how astonishingly well Paul and John seem to get on, despite Paul quipping at one point: ‘I might have to let him go.’ They make each other laugh, they interest each other musically, and at one point they dance together – remarkably well. It is said that, on seeing the footage, Paul found himself wondering if the band had ever really needed to break up.
A matter of weeks after the infamous rooftop concert, the Beatles went off and made Abbey Road, one of the most melodically inventive rock albums ever produced. None of them had yet hit thirty, and they had already re-written the history of popular music. Not bad going, I would have said to the smirkers and the sneerers. Not to mention the boomers with their academic scrolls.
In 1972, Zhou Enlai was asked what the effect of the French Revolution had been. He replied that it was too early to say. Well, if it is too early to say what the effect of the French Revolution was, two hundred years later, it is certainly too early to say what the effect of the Beatles and the Sixties are a few decades on. So cataclysmic were the changes, that we cannot re-think ourselves into a history without the Beatles. If the Stones really were an alternative, they were an alternative that couldn’t have evolved the way they did without the Beatles. They even recorded their compositions. Bob Dylan went off for a month to study their songs, and was astounded by their chord progressions, as well he might have been, given his own folk-based simplicities. Some of their chord sequences might have fallen out of the sky, and the highly distinctive vocal sounds they made often came from the fact that they were harmonising on fourths and fifths, rather than the more conventional thirds.
Their early set lists show where they were coming from. They revered Chuck Berry and Elvis (John’s hero), Smokey Robinson and a whole rainbow of American R and B artists and sounds. But they didn’t just imitate; they absorbed and assimilated. Their version of Smokey Robinson’s ‘You Really Got a Hold on Me’ is better than the original. So it was that when Brian Epstein got to hear the scruffy swaggerers in their black leather jackets down in the fetid atmosphere of the Cavern, he thought they were simultaneously appalling and wonderful. One of the things that Craig Brown’s One Two Three Four makes evident is how central Epstein was. He tidied them up, reminded them there were set hours in the day, made them a group. When Brian died, Lennon’s first remark was to the effect that they were finished now.
Brown’s sprightly and ingenious book has it in for two people: Yoko Ono and the Maharishi Yogi. Yoko he reckons was a second-rater who came from a life of immense privilege and lucked onto one of the most famous musicians in the world. She always claimed that she didn’t even know who John was, but her assignations with him look a bit more contrived than that. She knew what she was doing, all right. Poor Cynthia didn’t know what had hit her. Yoko arrived with a lorry-load of cosmic fatuities, and John fell for the whole lot – John, of all people. John, who had represented disbelief and cynicism incarnate. But Yoko was a strong woman and John needed one of those. Julia and Mimi were gone, though he phoned the latter every week until the end of his life. Now here comes Yoko, whom he took to calling Mother. Every so often there would be a break in John’s monologue and we would hear Yoko utter some celestial platitude, with an oriental wistfulness that evidently John at least found endearing.
So then we had the most caustic and unforgiving member of the Beatles growing enough hair to start a herbarium and engaging in Bed-Ins in posh hotels. The logic behind this appeared to be that if he and Yoko (and their hair) stayed in bed long enough, and invited the press around, the Viet Cong would stop fighting the US in Vietnam. When this did eventually happen, John celebrated as though he had helped make it happen. It was all very rum, and added to the mysterious aura the phrase ‘the Sixties’ can still have today.
And then, just next door, there was George, leaning Eastwards. He became devoted to Ravi Shankar, who once declared that he loved George. He even gave him sitar lessons. This had a curious effect. A whole generation of Western youth came to know the sound of the sitar through the bastardized version of it played by George on some Beatles record. The whole misalliance finds its splendid apogee in the Concert for Bangadesh. Ravi and his fellow musicians are fiddling with their instruments in preparation for their performance. When they finish the crowd bursts into applause. Ravi leans towards the mike and says, ‘If you enjoyed the tuning-up so much, we very much hope you will enjoy the music.’
Well, George didn’t restrict his fondness for things eastern to Ravi Shankar. He also went for The Maharishi Yogi and Transcendental Meditation, which now travels with a trademark – TM. Elijah had a chariot of fire to get him to heaven, but he only had one. The Maharishi had a fleet of golden Rolls Royces. To this day the exact number is disputed. Some say seventy-four; some say ninety-five. Whichever way you look at it, that’s a lot of golden Rolls Royces; the only recorded vehicle that Jesus possessed was an ass. Anyway, the Maharishi taught us how to escape entrapment in the trivia of this vale of tears. Meditation could transcend all that. And we could get there quicker than those years-long regimes advertised by monasteries. He was astonishingly popular and once the Beatles locked on, even more so. George bought the lot, even the yogic flying that followed. There are acres and acres of tragic footage of devotees engaging in this. Look carefully and you will see roomfuls of people with pillows under their bottoms, attempting to levitate, and signally failing. The Sixties, eh? A tricky subject. But as George put it, in one of his more eloquent moments, life goes on, within you and without you.
But back to those few years of the boys in their heyday, when their regime was worked out for them by Epstein and George Martin: one single every three months, and one album every six months. This, while endlessly touring. For a while there, they were very busy boys. No time for Transcendental Meditation™. After their US debut on CBS’s Ed Sullivan Show, the venues got bigger and bigger, the screaming got louder and louder, and they grew more and more disenchanted. Until, after a monumental ear-blaster at Shea Stadium, they all pretty much decided they’d had enough. From now on, they’d spend their time in the studio. Which they did, until that extraordinary al fresco event on the roof of the Apple Building in 1968, which the film Get Back leads us up to. And man, can those fellows play.
Alan Wall was born in Bradford, studied English at Oxford, and lives in North Wales. He has published six novels and three collections of poetry, including Doctor Placebo. Jacob, a book written in verse and prose, was shortlisted for the Hawthornden Prize. His work has been translated into ten languages. He has published essays and reviews in many different periodicals including the Guardian, Spectator, The Times, Jewish Quarterly, Leonardo, PN Review, London Magazine, The Reader and Agenda. He was Royal Literary Fund Fellow in Writing at Warwick University and Liverpool John Moores and is currently Professor of Writing and Literature at the University of Chester and a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. His book Endtimes was published by Shearsman in 2013, and Badmouth, a novel, was published by Harbour Books in 2014. A collection of his essays was issued by Odd Volumes, The Fortnightly Review’s publishing imprint, also in 2014. A second collection, of his Fortnightly reflections on Walter Benjamin, followed in 2018, and a third collection, Midnight of the Sublime, has just been published. An archive of Alan Wall’s Fortnightly work is here.