By Daniel Margrain
As an antidote to the official UK cinema release of Ron Howard’s documentary Beatles: Eight Days A Week – The Touring Years that focuses on the bands four years on the road, I thought it timely to reproduce Piero Scaruffi’s seminal award winning article which is arguably one of the most professional analysis of the career of pop group the Beatles ever written. The article, while highly critical of the artistic merits of the group, also provides a rare but welcome corrective to the many myths and falsehoods that have surrounded the ‘fab four’ for decades.
In my view, Scaruffi’s timeless appraisal remains possibly the most accurate retrospective of the group ever produced. The article is quite long but it’s worth persevering with. Be prepared, if you happen to be one of the many obsessive Beatles fans, it’s highly likely the article will upset you.
The Beatles most certainly belong to the history of the 60s, but their musical merits are at best dubious.
The Beatles came at the height of the reaction against rock and roll, when the innocuous “teen idols”, rigorously white, were replacing the wild black rockers who had shocked the radio stations and the conscience of half of America. Their arrival represented a lifesaver for a white middle class terrorized by the idea that within rock and roll lay a true revolution of customs. The Beatles tranquilized that vast section of the population and conquered the hearts of all those (first and foremost the females) who wanted to rebel, without violating the social status quo. The contorted and lascivious faces of the black rock and rollers were substituted by the innocent smiles of the Beatles; the unleashed rhythms of the first were substituted by the catchy tunes of the latter. Rock and roll could finally be included in the pop charts. The Beatles represented the quintessential reaction to a musical revolution in the making, and for a few years they managed to run its enthusiasm into the ground.
Furthermore, the Beatles represented the reaction against a social and political revolution. They arrived at the time of the student protests, of Bob Dylan, of the Hippies, and they replaced the image of angry kids, fists in the air, with their cordial faces and amiable declarations. They came to replace the accusatory words of militant musicians with overindulgent nursery rhymes. Thus the Beatles served as middle-class tranquilizers, as if to prove the new generation was not made up exclusively of rebels, misfits and sex maniacs.
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, one originally confined by the technical limitations of the 78 rpm record. They were the quintessence of “mainstream” (assimilating the innovations proposed by rock music) within the format of the melodic song.
The Beatles belonged, like the Beach Boys (whom they emulated throughout most of their career), to the era of the vocal band. In such a band the technique of the instrument was not as important as that of the chorus. Undoubtedly skilled at composing choruses, they availed themselves of producer George Martin (head of Parlophone since 1956), to embellish those choruses with arrangements more and more eccentric.
Thanks to a careful marketing campaign, they became the most celebrated entertainers of the era, and are still the darlings of magazines and tabloids, much like Princess Grace of Monaco and Lady Di.
The convergence between Western polyphony (melody, several parts of vocal harmony and instrumental arrangements) and African percussion – the leitmotif of US music from its inception – was legitimized in Europe by the huge success of the Merseybeat, in particular by its best sellers, Gerry and the Pacemakers and the Beatles, both produced by George Martin and managed by Brian Epstein. To the bands of the Merseybeat goes the credit of having validated rock music for a vast, virtually endless, audience. They were able to interpret the spirit and technique of rock and roll, while separating it from its social circumstances, thus defusing potential explosions. In such a fashion, they rendered it accessible not only to the young rebels, but to all. Mediocre musicians, and even more mediocre intellectuals, bands like the Beatles had the intuition of the circus performer who knows how to amuse the peasants after a hard day’s work, an intuition applied to the era of mass distribution of consumer goods.
Every one of their songs and every one of their albums followed much more striking songs and albums by others, but instead of simply imitating them, the Beatles adapted them to a bourgeois, conformist and orthodox dimension. The same process was applied to the philosophy of the time, from the protests on college campuses to Dylan’s pacifism, psychedelic drugs, or Eastern religion. Their vehicle was melody, a universal code of sorts, that declared their music innocuous. Naturally others performed the same operation, and many (from the Kinks to the Hollies, from the Beach Boys to the Mamas and Papas) produced melodies even more memorable, yet the Beatles arrived at the right moment and theirs would remain the trademark of the melodic song of the second half of the twentieth century.
Their ascent was branded as “Beatlemania”, a phenomenon of mass hysteria launched in 1963 that marked the height of the “teen idol” of the late 1950s, an extension of the myths of Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley. From that moment on, no matter what they put together, the Beatles remained the center of the media’s attention.
Musically, for what it is worth, the Beatles were the product of an era that had been prepared by vocal groups such as the Everly Brothers and by rockers such as Buddy Holly; an era that also expressed itself through the girl-groups, the Tamla bands and surf music. What the Beatles have in common with them, aside from almost identical melodies, is a general concept of song based on an exuberant, optimistic and cadenced melody.
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, Beck and Page of the Yardbirds, and many others who were less famous but more original). 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. 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). 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 as that of many other easy-listening groups: sub-standard.
Theirs were records of traditional songs crafted as they had been crafted for centuries, yet they served an immense audience, far greater than the audience of those who wanted to change the world, the hippies, freaks 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.
While the Velvet Underground, Frank Zappa, the Doors, Pink Floyd and many others were composing long and daring suites worthy of avantgarde 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. 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.
Beatlemania created a comical temporal distortion. Many Beatles fans were convinced that rock and roll was born around the early 1960s, that psychedelic rock and the hippies were a 1967 phenomenon, that student protests began in 1969, that peace marches erupted at the end of the 60s, and so on. Beatles fans believed that the Beatles were first in everything, while in reality they were last in almost everything. The case of the Beatles is a textbook example of how myths can distort history.
The Beatles had the historical function to delay the impact of the innovations of the 1960s . 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. Their historical function was also to prepare the more conservative audience for those innovations. Their strength was perhaps in 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 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.
Beatles fans can change the meaning of the word “artistic” to suit themselves, but the truth is that the artistic value of the Beatles work is very low. The Beatles made only songs, often unpretentious songs, with melodies no more catchy than those of many other pop singers. The artistic value of those songs is the artistic value of one song: however well done (and one can argue over the number of songs well done vs. the number of overly publicized songs by the band of the moment), it remains a song, precisely as toothpaste remains toothpaste. It does not become a work of art just because it has been overly publicized.
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. 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.
The melodies of the Beatles were perhaps inferior to many composers of pop music who still compete with the Beatles with regard to quality, those who were less famous and thus less played.
The songs of the Beatles were equipped with fairly vapid lyrics at a time when hordes of singer songwriters and bands were trying to say something intelligent. The Beatles’ lyrics were tied to the tradition of pop music, while rock music found space, rightly or wrongly, for psychological narration, anti-establishment satire, political denunciation, drugs, sex and death.
The most artistic and innovative aspect of the Beatles’ music, in the end, proved to be George Martin’s arrangements. Perhaps aware of the band’s limitations, Martin used the studio and studio musicians in a creative fashion, at times venturing beyond the demands of tradition to embellish the songs. 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. 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.
As popular icons, as celebrities, the Beatles certainly influenced their times, although much less than their fans suppose. Even Richard Nixon, the US president of the Vietnam War and Watergate influenced his times and the generations that followed, but that does not make him a great musician.
Today Beatles songs are played mostly in supermarkets. But their myth, like that of Rudolph Valentino and Frank Sinatra before them, will live as long as the fans who believed in it will be alive. Through the years their fame has been artificially kept alive by marketing, a colossal advertising effort, a campaign without equal in the history of entertainment.
Their history begins at the end of the 1950s. Buddy Holly’s Crickets had invented the modern concept of the rock band. Indirectly they had also started the fashion of naming a band with a plural noun, like the doo-wop ensembles before them, but a noun that was funny instead of serious. Almost immediately bands like “the Crickets” began to pop up everywhere, most of them bearing plural nouns. Insects were fashionable. The Beatles were the most famous.
Assembled to bring to Europe the free spirit, the simple melodies, and the vocal harmonies of the Beach Boys (the novelty of the moment) more than for any specific reason, the Beatles became, despite their limitations, the most successful recording artists of their time. While acknowledging that neither the Beatles nor the Beach Boys were music greats, it must be noted that both were influential in conferring commercial credibility to rock music, and both inspired thousands of youngsters around the world to form rock bands. The same had happened with Elvis Presley. Although far from being a great musician, he too had inspired thousands of white kids, among them both the Beatles and the Beach Boys, to become rockers.
The “swinging London” of the 1960s was a mix of renewal, mediocrity, conformity, non-commitment, cultural rebirth, tourist attraction and excitement, a locus of rebellion drowned in shining billboards, of young men with long hair and girls in mini-skirts, of wealth and hypocrisy about wealth, a city of indifference. La dolce vita, English style. The Beatles were the best selling product of that London, a city full of ambiguity and contradictions.
The Beatles’ birthplace was Liverpool. John Lennon was a rhythm guitar player with a skiffle group called the Quarrymen, founded in 1955, before forming the Beatles in 1960 with Paul McCartney. George Harrison, hired when he was still a minor, played lead guitar, with a formidable style inspired by the rockabilly of James Burton and Carl Perkins. They rose through the ranks playing rock and roll covers in Hamburg, Germany, then made their debut at The Cavern, in Liverpool, on February 21, 1961. Shortly after, Ringo Starr was called to replace the drummer Pete Best, and McCartney switched to the bass.
In 1962 two phenomena exploded in America: the Beach Boys and the Four Seasons. Both truly sang, in vocal harmony derived from 1950s doo-wop, which they introduced to white audiences, with arrangements imitating the Crickets.
That was the year the Beatles began the transition from covers to original, melodic, vocal harmonies. One of the first recordings of the Beach Boys had been a revision of one of Chuck Berry’s songs, one of the first recordings of the Beatles had to be a revision of one of Chuck Berry’s songs. Brian Wilson played the bass for the Beach Boys, Paul McCartney would play bass for the Beatles.
Brian Epstein was the man who scouted them and secured their contract with EMI in November 1961, and also the man who created their image,their clothes, their hairdos (similar to television comedian Ish Kabibble’s). George Martin was the man who created their sound.
1962 was the year of Bob Dylan, of peace demonstrations, of songs of protest. Precisely in 1962, far removed, diametrically opposed really, to the events that dominated US society, the Beatles debuted with a 45, Love Me Do, recorded in September 1962, a jovial rhythm and blues led by the harmonica in the style of Delbert McClinton. By the end of the year the song had made the charts. In February 1963, the band reached #2 with Please Please Me. In the space of few months, a diligent marketing strategy, ingeniously managed by Brian Epstein, unleashed mass hysteria. Records sold out before the recording sessions actually began, mass-media detailed step by step chronicles of the four heroes, the world of fashion imposed a new hairdo. Epstein had created “Beatlemania”…
The overflow of fanaticism around them demanded refinement of their style. They began to utilize new instruments. The more they dissociated themselves from their rhythm and blues roots, the faster their style became more melodious. Through From Me To You, the rowdy She Loves You (accessorized with the first “yeah-yeah-yeahs”), and I Want To Hold Your Hand (a heavier rhythm enhanced by clapping), all “number ones” on the charts of 1963, they fused centuries of vocal styles – sacred hymn, Elizabethan song, music hall, folk ballad, gospel and voodoo – in a harmonious and crystal-clear format for a happy chorus. A variant of the same process had been adopted in the United States by the Shirelles. For the most part it was Buddy Holly’s jovial, childish, catchy style that was copied, speeding the tempo to accommodate the demands of the “twist”. The twist was the dance craze of the moment: fast beat, suggestive moves and catchy tunes. The Beatles sensed that it was the right formula.
In the USA nobody had caught on yet, and only mangled versions of Please Please Me (March 1963) and With The Beatles (November 1963) had been released. In January 1964 EMI decided to invest significantly and I Want To Hold Your Hand reached the top of the charts together with the Beatles’ first US album Meet The Beatles (Capitol, 1964). In the States, cleansed at last of the perverted and amoral rock and roll scum of the 1950s, the charming and polite Merseybeat of the Beatles delighted the media. After their first tour in February 1964, and their appearance on the “Ed Sullivan Show”, their 45s were solidly on top of the US charts. In April 1964 they occupied the first five positions. After all, their sound was drenched in US music: their vocal style was either that of the hard rockers like Little Richard, or the gentler call-and-response of the Drifters (echoing one another, stretching a word for several beats, screaming coarse “yeah-yeah”, shrieking in falsetto), the choruses were Buddy Holly’s, the harmonies were the Beach Boys’ and the instrumental parts were remakes of twist combos.
The secret of the Beatles’ success, in the USA as in the UK, was the simplicity of their arrangements. Whereas the idols of the time were backed by complex, almost classical arrangements, at times even by studio effects, the Beatles employed the elementary technique of surf music, completely devoid of orchestral support and surreal effects. At a time when singers had become studio subordinates, the Beatles managed to reestablish the supremacy of the singer. The youths of the USA recognized themselves in a style that was much more direct than the manufactured one of their “teen idols”, and by default recognized themselves in the Beatles, precisely as they had recognized themselves in Elvis Presley after having become accustomed to the artificiality of pop music in the 1950s.
The Mersey sound was designed to tone down rock and roll. Under the direction of producer George Martin and manager Brian Epstein, the sound of the Beatles also became softer. The captivating style of the Beatles had already been pioneered by Gerry & The Pacemakers (formed in 1959, also managed by Epstein). They reached the charts with their first three 45s (How Do You Do It, March 1963, I Like It, May 1963, You`ll Never Walk Alone, October 1963): very melodic versions of rock and roll with sugar-coated versions of rock’s rebel text. Practically speaking, the Pacemakers’ formula brought rock and roll into pop music. They replaced the rough and crude beat of the blues with the light and tidy rhythms of European pop songs; they exchanged the slanted melodies of the blues with the catchy tunes of the British operetta; they substituted the provocative lyrics of Chuck Berry with the romantic rhymes of the “teen idols.” Epstein and Martin simply continued that format with the Beatles. The only difference was in the authorship of practically their entire cache. All the Beatles songs were signed Lennon-McCartney. (This was only for contractual reasons. In reality they were not necessarily co-written.)
The first student protests took place in Berkeley, California in 1964. Young people were protesting against the establishment in general, and against the war in Vietnam in particular. The rebellion that had been seething through the 50s had finally found its intellectual vehicle. The Beatles knew nothing of this when they recorded Can’t Buy Me Love, a swinging rockabilly a la Bill Haley, the first to reach #1 simultaneously in the States and in Britain, A Hard Day’s Night and I Feel Fine, using the feedback that had been pioneered in the 1950s by guitarists such as Johnny Watson and used in Britain by the Yardbirds. All three are exuberant songs carrying ever so catchy refrains, reaching the top of the charts on both sides of the Atlantic. With these songs and with their public behavior the Beatles showed a whimsical and provoking way to be young. The Beatles were still a brand new phenomenon when A Hard Day’s Night – the first surreal documentary about their daily lives was released, and their two first biographies were published. In the USA the marketing was intense: EMI was inundated by contracts to solicit the sales of Beatles wigs, Beatles attire, Beatles dolls, cartoons inspired by the Beatles. America was saturated with images of four smiling boys, the creation of a brand new myth that served to exorcise the demons of Vietnam, of the peace marches, of the civil disorders, of the student protests, of the racial disturbances, of the murder of JFK, of Bob Dylan, of rock and roll, of all the tragedies, real or presumed, that troubled the “American Dream”. In the end, it might have all been a form of shock therapy.
Sure enough, hidden behind those smiling faces were four mediocre musicians, and also four multimillionaire snobs in the proudest British tradition. Far from being symbols of rebellion, they were reactionism personified. The Beatles, optimistic and effervescent, represented an escape from reality. People, kids in particular, had a desperate need to believe in something that had nothing to do with bombs and upheaval. The Beatles put to music the enthusiasm of the masses and in return, in a cycle that bordered on perpetual motion, were enthusiastically acclaimed by the same masses.
The best of their cliches is summarized in a famous anecdote. Interviewed during their US tour, Lennon answered the question “How did you find America?” with “We turned left at Greenland!” Beneath this naive sense of humor, anarchic and surreal, lays the greatest merit of the band.
From 1965 the LP, in the preceding years not as important as the 45, became the new unit of measure of their work. The US releases had 12 cuts including the hits, the British versions had 14 cuts and generally none of the hits. A Hard Day’s Night (1964) was the first release to contain material exclusively co-written by Lennon and McCartney. For Sale, released immediately after, contained six covers (but also Eight Days A Week, and the melancholic I Don’t Want To Spoil The Party). Help (August 1965), with The Night Before and Ticket To Ride, marked the transition from the Merseybeat sound to one oriented more toward folk and country, though some of the songs bring Buddy Holly to mind. The Beatles of these days showed a formidable talent for the melancholic ballad, such as You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away, and most of all Yesterday, the slow song par excellence written by Paul McCartney, to which Martin added a string quartet (a song vaguely reminiscent of 1933’s Yesterdays by Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach). However, their best work is to be found in more aggressive songs, such as Help, a gospel full of life adapted to their surreal style.
Rubber Soul (December 1965) completed the transition from the 45 to the 33, and also from Merseybeat to folk-rock. Following their U.S. tour, the influence of the Byrds is very strong. The rock and roll beat in Drive My Car and Run For Your Life, the exotic mood of Norwegian Wood (a David Crosby-ian litany accompanied by sitar, an instrument already utilized by the Yardbirds, possibly based on what the Kinks had done a few months earlier with See My Friends) and the timid psychedelia of Nowhere Man cover a vast repertoire of harmonies for their standards. In spite of the fact that the Beatles sought success within rock and roll, it was evident that their best work was expressed through melodic songs. The tender ballads Girl and Michelle (a classic for acoustic guitar, melodic bass and chorus, in the style of 1950s vocal groups) are truly excellent songs in their genre, but because they lack both rhythm and volume, they were considered “minor” at the time.
In 1965 the Beatles recorded another melodic masterpiece, We Can Work It Out, ground out on barrel organ and accordion, inspired by French folk music. They pursued the mirage of the “rave-up” with the hard riff of Day Tripper (borrowed from Watch Your Step of bluesman Bobby Parker), a pathetic response to Satisfaction by the Stones and You Really Got Me by the Kinks. Both songs, hard rockers, had shocked the charts that same year.
The Beatles finally freed themselves from the obsession of emulating others in 1966, with Revolver, an album entirely dedicated to sophisticated songs. The album, extremely polished, seems the lighter version of Rubber Soul. The psychedelic Tomorrow Never Knows (sitar, backward guitar, organ drones), the vaguely oriental Love You To, the classic Eleanor Rigby, the Vaudevillian operetta Good Day Sunshine, the rhythm and blues of Got To Get You Into My Life and Dr. Robert, as well as Rain, recorded in the same sessions (with backward vocals, inspired by the Byrds’ Eight Miles High, that had charted just weeks before), are all mitigated by an ever more languid and romantic attitude. The few jolts of rhythm are kept at bay by a tender effusion in I’m Only Sleeping (with a timid solo of backward guitar), There And Everywhere and For No One. With this album the Beatles left behind rock and roll to get closer to pop music, the pop music of the Brill Building, that is, a genre of pop that sees Revolver as its masterpiece. (At the time melodic songs all over the world were inspired by the Brill Building). Of course Revolver was a thousand years late. That same year Dylan had released Blonde On Blonde, a double album with compositions fifteen minutes long, and Frank Zappa had released Freak Out, also a double album, in collage format. Rock music was experimenting with free form jams as in Virgin Forest by the Fugs, Up In Her Room by the Seeds, Going Home by the Rolling Stones. The songs of the Beatles truly belonged to another century.
The formal perfection of their melodies reached the sublime in 1967 with two 45s: the baroque/electronic Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever, released in February, an absolute masterpiece that never reached the top of the charts, the hard rocking Paperback Writer, and the childish Yellow Submarine, a mosaic full of sound gags and barroom choruses. Penny Lane represents the apex of the Manneristic style: Vaudevillian rhythm, hypnotic melody, Renaissance trumpets, folkloristic flutes and triangles. Strawberry Fields Forever is a densely-arranged psychedelic experiment (backward vocals, mellotron, harp, timpani, bongos, trumpet, cello).
Perhaps, the experiments could have continued in a more serious direction, as the intriguing idea of the 14-minute Carnival of Light leads one to believe, a piece recorded at the beginning of 1967 and never completed nor released.
1967 was the year that FM radio began to play long instrumentals. In Great Britain, it was the year of psychedelia, of the Technicolor Dream, of the UFO Club. The psychedelic singles of Pink Floyd were generating an uproar. Inevitably, the Beatles recorded Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
This quasi-concept album was released while the Monterey Festival was consecrating the sanctifiable, the big names of the times. Unlike most of the revolutionary records of those days, often recorded in haste and with a low budget, Sgt. Pepper cost a fortune and took four months to put together. The Beatles soar in the ethereal refrain of Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, utilizing the sitar, distorted keyboard sounds and Indian inspired vocals; they indulge in Vaudevillian tunes such as Lovely Rita and When I’m Sixty Four (a vintage ragtime worthy of the Bonzo Band), and they showcase their odd melodic sense in With A Little Help From My Friends. They scatter studio effects here and there, pretending to be avantgarde musicians, in Fixing A Hole and Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite, but in reality these are tunes inspired by the music halls, the circuses and small town bands. A Day In The Life is the culmination of the relationship between technique and philosophy. It represents the happy marriage between Martin’s sense of harmony, employing a 40-piece orchestra in which everybody plays every note, and Lennon’s hippie existentialism, that dissects the alienation of the bourgeoisie.
Everything was running smoothly in the name of quality music, now entrusted to high fidelity arrangements and adventurous variations of style, from folk ballads to sidewalk Vaudeville, from soul to marching bands, from the Orient to swing, from chamber music to psychedelia, from tap dance to little bands in the park. Everything had been fused into a steady flow of variety show skits.
Rather than an album of psychedelic music (compared to which it actually sounds retro), Sgt. Pepper was the Beatles’ answer to the sophistication of Pet Sounds, the masterpiece by their rivals, the Beach Boys, released a year and three months before. The Beatles had always been obsessed by the Beach Boys. They had copied their multi-part harmonies, their melodic style and their carefree attitude. Throughout their entire career, from 1963 to 1968, the Beatles actually followed the Beach Boys within a year or two, including the formation of Apple Records, which came almost exactly one year after the birth of Brother Records. Pet Sounds had caused an uproar because it delivered the simple melodies of surf music through the artistic sophistication of the studio. So, following the example of Pet Sounds, the Beatles recorded, from February to May 1967, Sgt. Pepper, disregarding two important factors: first that Pet Sounds had been arranged, mixed and produced by Brian Wilson and not by an external producer like George Martin, and second that, as always, they were late. They began assembling Sgt. Pepper a year after Pet Sounds had hit the charts, and after dozens of records had already been influenced by it.
Legend has it that it took 700 hours of studio recording to finish the album. One can only imagine what many other less fortunate bands could have accomplished in a recording studio with 700 hours at their disposal. Although Sgt. Pepper was assembled with the intent to create a revolutionary work of art, if one dares take away the hundreds of hours spent refining the product, not much remains that cannot be heard on Revolver: Oriental touches here and there, some psychedelic extravaganzas, a couple of arrangements in classical style. Were one to skim off a few layers of studio production, only pop melodies would remain, melodies not much different from those that had climbed the charts ten years before. Yet it was the first Beatles album to be released in long playing version all over the world. None of its songs were released as singles.
The truth is that although it was declared an “experimental” work, even Sgt. Pepper managed to remain a pop album. The Beatles of 1967 were still producing three-minute ditties, while Red Crayolas and Pink Floyd, to name two psychedelic bands of the era, were playing long free form suites – at times cacophonous, often strictly instrumental – that bordered on avantgarde. In 1967, the band that had never recorded a song that had not been built around a refrain began to feel outdated. They tried to keep up, but they never pushed themselves beyond the jingles, most likely because they could not, just as Marilyn Monroe could not have recited Shakespeare.
Sgt. Pepper is the album of a band that sensed change in the making, and was adapting its style to the taste of the hippies. It came in last (in June), after Velvet Underground & Nico (January), The Doors (also January), the Byrds’ Younger Than Yesterday (February), and the Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow (February) to signal the end of an era, after others had forever changed the history of rock music. (Several technical “innovations” on Sgt Pepper were copied from Younger Than Yesterday, whose tapes the Beatles had heard from David Crosby at the end of 1966). The uproar generated by Sgt. Pepper transferred those innovations from the US underground to the living rooms and the supermarkets of half the world.
With Sgt. Pepper, the sociology course in melodic rock and roll that Lennon and McCartney had introduced in 1963 came to an end. The music of the Beatles was an antidote to the uneasiness of those times, to the troubling events that scared and perplexed people. The course had the virtue of deflecting the impact of those events, the causes of political upheaval and moral revolution. The Beatles reassured the middle class at a time when almost nothing could reassure the middle class.
Every arrangement of that period – the harpsichords and the flutes, the prerecorded tracks and the electronic effects – was the result of George Martin’s careful production. Martin was a lay musician, a former member of a marching band that occasionally had played in St. James Park. He knew that avantgarde musicians made music by manipulating tracks, that instruments with unusual timbre existed, that rock bands were dissecting classical harmonies. His background, not to mention his intellectual ability, was of the circus, the carnival, the operetta, the marching band, London’s second-rate theaters. He took all he could from that folkloristic patrimony, every unorthodox technique. The results might not have been particularly impressive – after all he was neither Beethoven nor Von Karajan – but they were most certainly interesting. He was the true genius behind the music of the Beatles. Martin transformed their snobbish disposition, their childish insolence, their fleeting enthusiasm, into musical ideas. He converted their second hand melodies into monumental arrangements. He even played some of the instruments that helped those songs make history. From Rubber Soul on, Martin’s involvement got progressively more evident. Especially with Sgt. Pepper, Martin demonstrated his knowledge and his intuition. The idea to connect all the songs in a continuous flow, however, is McCartney’s. It is the operetta syndrome, the everlasting obsession of British musicians of the music halls. The Beatles filled newspapers and magazines with their declarations about drugs and Indian mysticism, and how they converted those elements into music, but it was Martin who was doing the conversion, who was transforming their fanciful artistic ambitions into music.
Around the time of Sgt. Pepper’s release, Brian Epstein died. (His death was attributed to drugs and alcohol.) He was the man who had given fame to the Beatles, the fundamental presence in their development, the man who had invented their myth. The Beatles were four immature kids who for years had played the involuntary leading roles in an immensely successful soap opera, a part that paid them with imprisonment. For years they did not dare step outside their hotel rooms or their limousines. As Epstein’s control began to lessen they began to look around, to take notice of the drugs, the social disorder, the ideals of peace, the student protests, the Oriental philosophies. It was a world completely unknown to them, full of issues they had never mentioned in their songs. The revelation was traumatic. Epstein’s absence generated chaos, exposing problems with revenue, representation and public relations that eventually caused the demise of the group, but it also gave them the chance to grow up.
Sgt Pepper represents a breaking point in their career on several levels. It is a very autobiographical conceptual take on self-awareness. It is a concept album about the discovery of being able to put together a concept album.
Two projects realized with unusual wit also belong to the same period, a period that bridged two eras: the television movie Magical Mystery Tour and the cartoon Yellow Submarine. In both works can be found some of the most ingenious ideas of the quartet. The grotesque schizoid nightmare I Am The Walrus and the kaleidoscopic trip It’s All Too Much are exercises of surrealism and psychedelia applied to the Merseybeat. Magical Mystery Tour also includes the bucolic ballad The Fool On The Hill, the psychedelic Blue Jay Way, and the mantra Baby You`re A Rich Man.
Meanwhile the shower of hits influenced by the experimental climate continued: Magical Mystery Tour, the movie soundtrack, with trumpets, jazz piano, changes in tempo, and a circus huckster-style presentation, Your Mother Should Know, another vaudeville classic, the anthem All You Need Is Love, Hello Goodbye, a catchy melody distorted by psychedelic effects, Lady Madonna, the boogie inspired by Fats Domino. But the Beatles still belonged to the era of pop music: unlike Cream they did not pull off solos, unlike Hendrix they strummed their guitars without real know-how, unlike Pink Floyd they did not dare dissect harmony. They were not just retro, they simply belonged elsewhere.
Hey Jude (august 1968), a long (for the Beatles) jam of psychedelic blues-rock, in reality another historic slow song by McCartney, came out after Traffic’s Dear Mr. Fantasy and also after Cream’s lengthy live jams had reached peak popularity. Paradoxically, Hey Jude established a new sales record; it was #1 on the charts for nine weeks and sold six million copies.
Having established the melodic standard of the decade, the quartet implemented it in every harmonic recipe that arose from time to time. By applying the industrial law of constant revision, they Beatles managed to keep themselves on top. So much variety of arrangements resulted in mere mannerism, meticulous attention to detail and ornament. The albums of the third period fluctuate in fact between collages of miniatures and melodic fantasies, but always skillfully keeping a harmonic cohesion between one song and the other, in the step with – consciously or unconsciously – the structure of the operetta.
By the time of their next LP release they were leading separate lives, each indifferent to the ideas of the others, and their album reflected the situation. It was clear that this new batch of recorded songs was not the effort of a band, but the work of four artists profoundly different from one another.
The double album The Beatles (November 1968), very similar in spirit to the Byrds’ Notorious Byrd Brothers (June 1968), is a disorganized heap of incongruous ideas. No other Beatles album had ever been so varied and eclectic. Their new “progressive” libido found an outlet in blues-rock (Rocky Raccoon, Why Don’t We Do It In The Road), and especially the giddy hyper-boogies (Birthday and Helter Skelter). As a consequence of this fragmented inspiration, the record includes a cornucopia of genres: classical (Piggies, a rare moment of genius from Harrison, a baroque sonata performed with the sarcastic humour of the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, with a melody borrowed from Stephane Grappelli’s Eveline), acoustic folk (Blackbird), the campfire sing-a-long (Bungalow Bill), ballads (Cry Baby Cry – one of their best piano progressions), the usual vaudeville-style parade (Don’t Pass Me By, Martha My Dear, Obladi Oblada), and melodic rock (While My Guitar Gently Weeps, the jewel of their tunefulness). The album wraps up with a long jam, more or less avantgarde, (Revolution No. 9, co-written by John Lennon and Yoko Ono) two years after everybody else, and three years after the eleven minutes of Goin’ Home, by the Stones.
The so called White Album sampled the mood change of rock music toward a simpler and more traditional way to make music. It was released three months after Sweetheart Of The Rodeo by the Byrds, which in turn had followed Dylan’s John Wesley Harding. It is also an album that reflects the passing of Brian Epstein.
In 1968 Great Britain became infected by the concept album/rock opera bug, mostly realized by Beatles contemporaries: Tommy by the Who, The Village Green Preservation Society by the Kinks, Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake by the Small Faces, Odyssey and Oracle by the Zombies, etc (albums that in turn owed something to the loosely-connected song cycles of pop albums such as Frank Sinatra’s In The Wee Small Hours (1955), the Byrds’ Fifth Dimension, the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper). So, with the usual delay, a year later the Beatles gave it a try. Abbey Road (1969), is a vaudeville-style operetta that combines every genre in a steady stream of melodies and structurally perfect arrangements. It is the summa encyclopaedica of their career. It is a series of self-mocking vignettes, mimicking now the circus worker (Maxwell’s Silver Hammer), now the crooner (Oh Darling, a parody a la Bonzo Band), now the baby-sitter (Octopus’s Garden, in the silly vein of Yellow Submarine), culminating in the overwhelming suite of side B. Starting with the primitive exuberance of You Never Give Me Your Money (a mini rock opera worthy of early Zappa) and Mean Mr Mustard, the suite comes in thick and fast with Polytheme Pam and She Came In Thru The Bathroom Window, and dies melancholically with yet another goliardic chorus, Carry That Weight (that reprises the motifs of Money and I Want You). It is the apotheosis of the belated music hall entertainer in Paul McCartney. And it is, above all, a masterpiece of production, of sound, of sonic puzzles.
As was the case with their contemporaries – Who, Kinks, Small Faces and Zombies – this late album/thesis runs the risks going down in history as the Beatles’ masterpiece. Obviously it does not even come close to the creative standards of the time (1969), but it scores well. The result is formally impeccable melodic songwriting, although it must be noted that the best songs, both written by George Harrison, are also the most modest. Abbey Road is their last studio album, again produced by George Martin.
All efforts at cohesion notwithstanding, their personalities truly became too divergent. The modest hippie George Harrison became attracted to Oriental spiritualism. (Something and Here Comes The Sun are his melancholy ballads). Paul McCartney, the smiling bourgeois, became progressively more involved with pop music (every nursery-rhyme, Get Back and Let It Be included, are his). John Lennon, the thoughtful intellectual became absorbed in self-examination and political involvement. His was a much harder and/or psychedelic sound (Revolution, Come Together, the dreamy and Indian-like Across The Universe). They were songs ever more meaningless and anonymous. After all, the break-up had begun with Revolver (Lennon wrote Tomorrow Never Knows, Harrison Love You To, McCartney Eleanor Rigby), and had been camouflaged in successive records by Martin’s painstakingly arrangements.
The Beatles adapted their music to suit the styles in fashion: doo-wop, garage-rock, psychedelia, country-rock. Very few bands changed style so drastically from year to year. Perhaps they began to feel obsolete listening to Cream. Cream concerts were the first musical phenomenon in Great Britain to rival Beatlemania. Cream did all they could to make the Merseybeat sound terribly old, precisely what the Beatles had done to the sound of Elvis Presley. In 1969, Led Zeppelin changed completely the importance of radio and charts. [Led Zeppelin is the first enormously successful band whose album did not get any air play on AM radio (only FM) and whose songs did not make the singles charts. The change they brought about was significant because it shifted the importance of the charts from singles to albums. -Translator’s Note] Since they used melody as a lever, the Beatles had a relatively easy time in following every shift in fashion (psychedelia included), until hard-rock – the antithesis of Beatlemania – came about. Suddenly the idol was no longer the singer but the instrument, the excitement was generated by the riff and not by the refrain, concerts were attended by multitudes of long-haired men on drugs who gathered on the street, not by hysterical teenage girls who assembled in theaters. Hard-rock negated their simple melodies. It is not by coincidence that the arrival of hard-rock marked the end of the Beatles.
With out a shadow of a doubt, the Beatles were great melodicists, but at a time when melody was considered a reductive factor. As a matter of fact their melodies marked a regression to the 50s, to the type of singer the recording industry was desperately trying to push on the audience and against whom rock sought to rebel.
The Beatles tried every fashion exported by the US: Chuck Berry’s rock and roll, the vocal harmonies of the Beach Boys, the romantic melody of Tin Pan Alley, the baroque sound of Pet Sounds (Beach Boys), the rock opera Absolutely Free (Frank Zappa), the psychedelic arrangements of the Electric Prunes and the like, the hard riffs of the blues-rock jams (Cream), the synthesis of folk-rock (launched by Dylan and the Grateful Dead). Yet the audience credited these innovations – brought about by others – to the Beatles. All things considered, their success is one of the greatest paradoxes of the century. The Beatles understood virtually nothing of what was happening around them, but the success of anything they copied was guaranteed. By buying their records, one bought a shortcut to the music of those times.
The enormous influence of the Beatles was not musical. Music, especially in those days, was something else: experimental, instrumental, improvised, political. The Beatles played pop ditties until the end. The most creative rock musicians of the time played everything but pop ditties, because rock was conceived as an alternative to ditties. FM radio was created to play rock music, not pop ditties. Alternative music magazines were born to review rock music, not pop songs. Evidently, to the kids who listened to the Beatles (mostly girls attracted by their looks), rock music had nothing to say that they were willing to listen to.
They were influential, yes, but on the customs – in the strictest sense of the word. Their influence, for better or for worse, on the great phenomena of the 60s does not amount to much. Unlike Bob Dylan, they did not stir social revolts; unlike the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead they did not foster the hippie movement; unlike Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix they did not further the myth of LSD; unlike Jagger and Zappa they had no impact on the sexual revolution. Indeed the Beatles were icons of the customs that embodied the opposite: the desire to contain all that was happening. In their songs there is no Vietnam, there is no politics, there are no kids rioting in the streets, there is no sexual promiscuity, there are no drugs, there is no violence. In the world of the Beatles the social order of the 1940s and the 1950s still reigns. At best they were influential on the secret dreams of young girls, and on the haircuts of young nerdy boys.
The Beatles had the historical function to serve as champions of the reaction. Their smiles and their choruses hid the revolution: they concealed the restlessness of an underground movement ready to explode, for a bourgeoisie who wanted to hear nothing about it.
They had nothing to say and that is why they never said it.