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The Beatles (Part I)
13 The Beatles
Next come the Fab Four, the Moptop Mersey Marvels, and this is the bit I've been dreading. I mean what is there possibly left to say on them?
In the beginning, I should say, the Beatles were the Quarry-men, and then they were the Silver Beatles, and there were five of them - John Lennon, Stuart Sutcliffe, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Pete Best. All of them came from working class or lower-middle-class backgrounds in Liverpool and the only ones with any pretensions to anything were Paul McCartney, who had racked up five '0'-levels, and Stuart Sutcliffe, who painted.
The heavies at this time were Sutcliffe and John Lennon, who were at art school together.
Sutcliffe was something like an embryo James Dean, very beautiful-looking, and he wore shades even in the dark, he was natural image. Of all the Beatles, at this stage, he was the most sophisticated and the most articulate and Eduardo Paolozzi, the painter, who taught him for a time, says that he was very talented indeed.
As for Lennon, he was a roughneck. His father, who was a seaman, had left home when Lennon was still a small child, his mother had died, and he'd been brought up by his Aunt Mimi. And by the time he got to Art School, he'd grown into a professional hard-nut, big-mouthed and flash, and he rampaged through Liverpool like some wounded buffalo, smashing everything that got in his way. He wrote songs with Paul McCartney. He had hefty intellectual discussions with Sutcliffe. He was rude to almost everyone, he was loud and brutally funny, his put-downs could kill. A lot of people noticed him.
The Beatles, at this time, were still total Teds: they wore greasy hair and leather jackets and winkle-pickers, they jeered and got into fights and were barred from pubs.
The music they played then was souped-up rock, much influenced by Eddie Cochran and Buddy Holly, not notably original, and they were less than an explosion. In 1960, they managed a tour of Scotland with Johnny Gentle, one of the lesser figures in the Larry Parnes stable, but mostly they alternated between random gigs in Liverpool and seasons at the Star Club in Hamburg, where they played murderous hours each night and halfway starved to death.
At this point, Stuart Sutcliffe left the group to concentrate on his painting and, soon afterwards, died of a brain tumour. He was twenty-one. Meanwhile, the Beatles had begun to move up a bit - they'd made some records in Germany, bad records but records just the same, and they'd built themselves a solid following, both in Germany and at home. And musically, they'd become competent and they had their own sound, a crossbreed between classic rock and commercial R&B, and they were raw, deafening, a bit crude but they were really exciting. At least, unlike any other British act ever, they didn't ape America but sounded what they were, working-class Liverpool, unfake, and that's what gave them their strength, that's what made Brian Epstein want to manage them.
Epstein was the eldest son in a successful Jewish business family and he ran a Liverpool record store. In his early twenties, he'd wanted to be an actor and he'd gone to RADA but now, approaching thirty, he'd resigned himself to being a businessman. Intelligent and loyal and neurotic, painfully sensitive, he was nobody's identikit picture of a hustler but he was civilized, basically honest, and he had capital. So he asked the Beatles to let him be manager and they agreed.
Soon after this, Pete Best, the drummer, got flung out and was replaced by Ringo Starr. Best had laid down a loud and clumsy beat, quite effective, but he'd been less sharp, less clever, less flexible than the other Beatles and they'd got bored with him, they wanted him out.
Ringo Starr's real name was Richard Starkey and he'd been playing with Rory Storme and the Hurricanes, Liverpool's top group of that time. Actually, he wasn't too much of a drummer and he had rough times at the hands of vengeful Pete Best fans; he was given a fierce baptism. But he had his own defences, a great off-hand resilience and a deadpan humour, and he survived.
Meanwhile, Epstein acted like a manager. Privately, he had huge inhibitions about hustling but he fought them down and sweated. So he had demos made and touted them round the record companies; he pleaded and spieled and harangued. And having been first turned down by Dick Rowe at Decca, the King Dagobert of pop, he finally got a contract with E.M.I. and everything began.
From there on in, it was fast and straight-ahead: the first single, Love Me Do, made the thirty and the second, Please, Please Me, made number one and the third, Front Me To You also made number one (louder) and the fourth, She Loves You, made the biggest hit that any British artist had ever cut. All of them were written by Lennon and McCartney.
By spring of 1963, they had taken over from Cliff Richard here and, by autumn, they were a national obsession. At the beginning of 1964, given the most frantic hype ever, they broke out in America and stole the first five places solid on the chart. Summer, they released their first movie, Hard Day's Night, and it smashed and that just about rounded things out. Altogether, it had taken two years from first big push to last.
At the end of all this, they had become unarguably the largest phenomenon that pop had ever coughed up and, even more remarkably, they've hardly slid since. To the time of writing they have sold upwards of two hundred million records and they're coming up for their twentieth straight number one.
Beyond that, they had made millions of pounds for themselves and many more millions of pounds for the Government and, in reward, they were all given the MBE for their contributions to the export drive. This was a clincher - assorted worthies sent their own medals back in protest but everyone else was delighted. That's how respectable pop had become and it was all the Beatles who'd made it like that.
Beyond their music itself, their greatest strengths were clarity of image and the way they balanced. It's a truism that no pop format is any good unless it can be expressed in one sentence, but the Beatles went beyond that, they could each be said in one word: Lennon was the brutal one, McCartney was the pretty one, Ringo Starr was the lovable one, Harrison was the balancer. And if Lennon was tactless, McCartney was a natural diplomat. And if Harrison seemed dim, Lennon was very clever. And if Starr was clownish, Harrison was almost sombre. And if McCartney was arty, Starr was basic. Round and round in circles, no loose ends left over, and it all made for a comforting sense of completeness.
Completeness, in fact, was what the Beatles were all about. They were always perfectly self-contained, independent, as if the world was split cleanly into two races, the Beatles and everyone else, and they seemed to live off nobody but themselves.
There is a film of their first American press conference that expresses this perfectly. Hundreds of newsmen question them, close in and batter and hassle them but the Beatles aren't reached. They answer politely, they make jokes, they're most charming but they're never remotely involved, they're private. They have their own club going and, really, they aren't reachable. They are, after all, the Beatles.
Throughout this, they are very subtly playing image both ways - they are anti-stars and they're superstars both. They use Liverpool accents, they're being consciously working class and non-showbiz and anti-pretension but, in their own way, they're distancing themselves, building up mystique for all they are worth. With every question that gets thrown at them, they spell it out more clearly: we are ordinary, modest, no-nonsense, unsentimental and entirely superhuman.
For some reason, such built-in arrogance hardly ever misses - it's the same equation that the inherited rich sometimes have, the way that they can be charming, gentle, humble as hell and still you know you can't ever get to them, they're protected and, finally, they only function among themselves. They're in their own league and you're insulted, you sneer but you're hooked and, kid, would you ever like in.
This is the superstar format, the only one that really works, and the Beatles had it exactly, they were a whole new aristocracy in themselves. And, of course, they'd have been huge anyway, they'd have come through on their music and their prettiness alone, but it was this self-sufficiency, this calm acceptance of their own superiority, that made them so special.
Between them, the four of them being so complementary, they managed to appeal to almost everyone.
Lennon, for instance, trapped the intellectuals. He started writing books and he knocked out two regulation slim volumes, In His Own Write and Spaniard In The Works, stories, poems, doodled drawings and assorted oddments. Mostly, they were exercises in sick, sadistic little sagas of deformity and death, written in a style halfway between Lewis Carroll and Spike Milligan.
Predictably, the critics took it all with great solemnity and, straightaway, Lennon was set up as cultural cocktail food, he got tagged as an instinctive poet of the proletariat, twisted voice of the underdog. He himself said that he only wrote for fun, to pass time, but no matter, he was turned into a heavy Hampstead cult.
Meanwhile, he sat around in discotheques and tore everyone to pieces. He was married and had a son. He lived in a big suburban mansion in Weybridge and he was sharp as a scythe. He wrote songs as if he was suffocating. Still, he was powerful and he generated a real sense of claustrophobia, he had great command of irony and he owned one of the best pop voices ever, rasped and smashed and brooding, always fierce. Painful and obsessive, his best songs have been no fun whatever but they've been strong: / Am The Walrus, A Day In The Life, Happiness Is A Warm Gun and, most racked of all, Strawberry Fields Forever.
On stage, he played monster and made small girls wet their knickers. He hunched up over the mike, very tight because he couldn't see an inch without his glasses on, and he'd make faces, stick his tongue out, be offensive in every way possible. On Twist and Shout, he'd rant his way into total incoherence, half rupture himself. He'd grind like a cement mixer and micro-bops loved every last dirty word of him. No doubt, the boy had talent.
Paul McCartney played Dick Diver. He was stylish, charming, always elegant and, whenever he looked at you, he had this strange way of making you feel as if you were genuinely the only person in the world that mattered. Of course, he'd then turn away and do exactly the same thing with the next in line but, just that flash while it lasted, you were warmed and seduced and won over for always.
He was a bit hooked on culture: he went to all the right plays, read the right books, covered the right exhibitions and he even had a stage when he started diluting his accent. No chance - Lennon brought him down off that very fast indeed. Still, he educated himself in trends of all kinds and, when he was done, he emerged as a full-blown romantic, vastly sentimental, and he wrote many sad songs about many sad things, songs that were so soft and melodic that grannies everywhere bought them in millions.
In their different styles, then, both Lennon and McCartney had gotten arty and their music changed. In the first place, their work had been brash, raucous, and the lyrics very basic - She Loves You, Thank You Girl, I Saw Her Standing There. Good stuff, strong and aggressive, but limited. From about 1964 on though, they got hooked on the words of Bob Dylan and their lyrics, which had always been strictly literal, now became odder, quirkier, more surreal. Message and meaning: suddenly it was creative artist time.
My own feeling is that Lennon has heavy talent and that McCartney really hasn't. He's melodic, pleasant, inventive but he's too much syrup.
Still, they do make a partnership: Lennon's toughness plays off well against McCartney's romanticism, Lennon's verbal flair is complemented by McCartney's knack of knocking out instantly attractive melody lines. They add up.
Of course, when McCartney runs loose with string quartets, some horribly mawkish things happen - Yesterday, She's Leaving Home - but he has a certain saving humour and he's usually just about walked the line.
At any rate, he looks sweet and more than anyone, he made the Beatles respectable at the start and he's kept them that way, no matter what routines they've got involved in. Even when he confesses to taking acid or bangs on about meditation, he invariably looks so innocent, acts so cutely that he gets indulged, he's always forgiven. Regardless, he is still a nice boy. Also, not to be overlooked, he is pretty and girls scream at him.
More than any of the others, though, it was Ringo Starr who came to sum the Beatles up.
America made him. In England, he was always a bit peripheral, he always sat at the back and kept his mouth shut but, when the Beatles hit New York, they were treated very much like some new line in cuddly toys, long-haired and hilarious, and Ringo stole it.
Big-nosed and dogeyed, he had a look of perpetual bewilderment and said hardly anything: 'I haven't got a smiling mouth or a talking face.' He only bumbled, came on like some pop Harry Langdon and women in millions ached to mother him. In fairness, it has to be said that this was not his fault - he looked that way by nature and couldn't change.
Every now and then, out of deep silence, he'd emerge with some really classic line. No verbal gymnastics like Lennon, not even a joke - just one flat line, so mumbled and understated as to be almost non-existent.
My own favourite was his summing-up of life as a Beatle: 'I go down to John's place to play with his toys, and sometimes he comes down here to play with mine.'
He was solid. When he got married, he chose no model, no super-groupie, but a girl from Liverpool, a hairdresser's assistant. He had known and gone steady with her for years. And when all the Beatles went meditating in India with the Maharishi, he said that it reminded him of Butlins and came home early.
In many ways, he typified the best in the English character - stability, tolerance, lack of pretension, humour, a certain built-in cool. He knew that he wasn't a great drummer and it didn't upset him. Not very much upset him: he sat at home and played records, watched television, shot pool. Simply, he passed time.
He was hooked on Westerns and he loved new gadgets and he spent a lot of his time just playing. He sat with his wife and his children. Well, he might be slightly bored at times because he had nothing much to do any more but he ticked over and, quite genuinely, he would not have been too distraught if the Beatles had gone broke on him and he'd been forced to earn a living again. He was a survivor.
George Harrison was more problematic.
To begin with, he wasn't much more than a catcher, a trampoline for the others to bounce off. On stage, he'd set himself a little way back from the mike and play along without smiling. He hardly moved and he'd look cut off, vaguely bored.
His big moment used to be when he and Paul McCartney would suddenly bear down hard on the mike together and, cheeks almost touching, they'd shake their heads like mad. This gesture used to provoke more screams than almost anything else. But when it was over, Harrison never followed it up, he only dropped back and looked bored again.
In interviews, too, he was less than impressive. He was slower than the rest, less imaginative, and he tended to plod a bit. In every way, he was overshadowed by Lennon/ McCartney.
At this stage, his most publicized interest was money and he got very tight with Epstein, who used to explain the complexities of Beatle finance to him. Epstein, who worshipped the Beatles and was greatly afraid of losing touch with them, loved this and used to speak of Harrison as his most favourite son.
Still, as Lennon/McCartney got increasingly arty, Harrison was stung and he began chasing. He went on a heavy intellectual streak himself.
First up, he got interested in Indian music and took lessons on sitar from Ravi Shankar. Second, he was to be seen flitting in and out of London Airport wearing beads and baggy white trousers. Third, he started writing Indian-style songs, all curry powder and souvenirs from the Taj Mahal, very solemn. And finally, he went up a mountain with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, guru to the stars, and came down again a convinced mystic. From here on, he was a philosopher, a sage, and his interviews were stuffed full of dicta, parables and eternal paradoxes. Sitting crosslegged in Virginia Water, he hid his face behind a beard, a moustache, two Rasputin eyes and he was almost unrecognizable as George Harrison, guitar-picker.
Ringo apart then, all of the Beatles had gone through heavy changes. In 1963, they'd epitomized everything that was anti-pretension: they'd been tough and funny and cool, merciless to outsiders, and they'd had the most murderous eyes for pomposity of any kind. That was one of their greatest attractions, their total lack of crapola and, even after they'd made it so huge, they didn't lose out. Well, maybe they read more books, went to more theatres and so forth but, basically, they stayed as hard as ever. Paul McCartney wrote a few sentimental ballads, Harrison learned sitar, Lennon put smoked windows on his Rolls but the wit was still dry, the put-downs fierce, the lack of sell-out total.
It wasn't until the release of Rubber Soul, Christmas 1965, that the cool first began to crack. Musically, this was the subtlest and most complex thing they'd done and lots of it was excellent, Drive My Car and Girl and You Wont See Me, but there were also danger signals, the beat had softened and the lyrics showed traces of fake significance. One song at least, The Word, was utter foolishness and hardly anything had the raw energy of their earlier work, there was nothing as good as I Saw Her Standing There or I'm A Loser. Simply, the Beatles were softening up.
The next album, Revolver, was further on down the same line. Again, there was a big step forward in ingenuity and, again, there was a big step back in guts. Eleanor Rigby was clever but essentially sloppy. Harrison's Love You To wasn't even clever. And then there was Tomorrow Never Knows.
Finally, in the summer of 1967, there came Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which took the process to its inevitable conclusion. Although it still used rock 'n' roll as a musical framework, it used all kinds of other disciplines as well -Eastern musics, chamber music, English music hall, modern-classical electronic -and turned them into montage. This was far beyond Pop, beyond instinct and pure energy. Limp and self-obsessed, it was Art. Not art; Art.
What had happened? In general, it was probably the inevitable effect of having so much guff written about them - they got told they were geniuses so often, they finally believed it, and began to act as such. In particular, it was acid.
In the context of this book, it doesn't matter much whether acid was good or bad for them. All that counts is that it greatly changed them. Right then, they quit being just a rock group, Liverpool roughnecks with long hair and guitars and fast mouths, and they turned into mystics, would-be saints.
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