Saturday, September 04, 2010

fab four fest

I'm going through one of my periodic Beatles binges at the moment. The Fab Four section of my CD collection runs only from Rubber Soul (1965) onwards so I thought I'd try brushing up on some of the earlier albums of the "Beatlemania" years.

What's brought this on is a British Library event I went to a couple of weeks ago to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the band (It was in 1960 that John, Paul, George, Stuart Sutcliffe and Pete Best made their first forays into Hamburg clubland). Regaling us with Beatles tales, playing choice tracks and fielding questions are Beatles luminaries Paul du Noyer (author of books on John Lennon and the music of his native Liverpool) and Philip Norman (definitive Beatles Lennon biographer and author of a hefty 864-page tome on Lennon).

Both speakers are at pains to play down the usual stereotypes of Lennon as "Angry Young Man" and McCartney as "Sensitive Soul". Two tracks from the "White" album--Julia and Helter Skelter are played as cases in point. Lennon's early family background is well documented elsewhere and this song for his mother, who died in a car accident when he was seventeen, is full of poetic beauty ("When I cannot sing my heart I can only speak my mind") at odds with the cynical, sometimes spiteful, character who would often appear in interviews.

Similarly, McCartney--famous balladeer of Yesterday, Michelle and The Long and Winding Road--wrote Helter Skelter after reading an interview with Pete Townshend describing their recent single, I Can See for Miles, as the "loudest, rawest, dirtiest song" the Who had ever recorded. Not wanting to be pigeon-holed as a writer of slow songs, he set about trying to write something just as "loud, raw and dirty" for the Beatles. The song certainly provoked a reaction: its supposed prophecy of an apocalyptic war infamously led to it being appropriated by Charles Manson. It has even been hailed in some quarters as an important stage in the development of heavy metal music.

One of the tracks Du Noyer chooses to play is a reminder that, even among the uptempo sing-a-long hits of the first few albums, there are quieter, more reflective songs which hint at Lennon and McCartney's developing genius for songwriting. Clocking in at a sublimely understated 1 minute 57 seconds, I'll Follow the Sun--from the 1964 "Beatles For Sale" album--is a fantastically impressive early example of McCartney's nack for a cleverly crafted melody:

There's no disputing that John and Paul were the creative genuises of the band but I'm struck by the extent to which du Noyer and Norman seem willing to play down the roles of George and Ringo: Norman concedes that Harrison wrote some great songs but "only while he was in the Beatles". I wonder about the extent to which this is true: by the time the Beatles split he had written three whole albums' worth of his own compositions which had hitherto failed to see the light of day. Maybe not many of these were as good as the best of the Beatles. Surely his guitar riffs are worth a mention in dispatches though--I Feel Fine? Paperback Writer?

Similarly, when an audience member brings up Lennon's typically acerbic comment that Starr "wasn't even the best drummer in the Beatles", du Noyer and Norman concede only that Ringo's easy-going personality was a calming influence on the more volatile other band members. They don't make any case for his drumming technique. Aren't there some tracks--particularly in the later years--(Come Together, A Day in the Life) which show Lennon's remark up for the cheap jibe it was?

This was the second Beatles event I've been to at the British Library and like the first it was an entertaining and thought-provoking evening. It's just good to be reminded again what superb songwriters and great musicians the Beatles were.

In a futile attempt to reduce their career to a handful of highlights, may I in conclusion offer the following "top five" Beatles moments:

1. The opening line of Girl, proof that you don't need an intro. Just get on and say what you've got to say.

2. The fugue-like harpsichord solo in In My Life played by George Martin (Is there really anyone else worthy of the official "Fifth Beatle" title?)

3. The final five chords of Please Please Me, the only possible way to end the song.

4. The whole of She's Leaving Home. I once foisted this song on a class of unsuspecting French sixth-formers to get me through an English conversation class. They seemed to enjoy it.

5. The trumpet restatement of the "You Never Give Me Your Money" theme (at 1:52) in the Abbey Road Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End medley, the final track (almost) on the final Beatles album.

Of course, ask me on another day and five different songs would get the vote...

P.S. This interview with Philip Norman gives a flavour of my British Library evening.

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