Sunday, 31 October 2010

The Beatles (2)

Shall we have the debate over whether The Beatles (the album) should have been a double album or a single? Yes, let’s. I’ll start: if you think it should’ve been a single, you’re wrong.

I’ve got some space to fill so I suppose I might as well back that up a bit.

The Beatles is a double album for ruthlessly pragmatic reasons. In 1967, Brian Epstein had cut a new deal with EMI. This tied the group to the label not for a period of time, nor a number of albums, but for a set number of tracks. It’s a deal that would not have been made at any other point in history, coming at a time when the albums market had taken off but the notion of what constituted a ‘track’ was still clearly defined by the demands of the single. The general trend was towards longer tracks, so EMI probably didn’t see a problem. Bob Dylan had released Blonde On Blonde as a double the year before, but that had contained fourteen tracks, with several long ones. It’s safe to say they weren’t expecting The Beatles to make the album they made in 1968: I don’t think there’d ever been a album like it, in fact. And I’m fairly sure that once EMI heard ‘Wild Honey Pie’ they resolved never to base a deal on ‘number of tracks’ ever again.

So The Beatles, having signed perhaps the only deal in history where a double album counted as two albums, made this 30-track opus purely to eat up their contract faster. Yet in doing so they hit upon a way to follow one of the hardest-to-follow albums anyone had ever made. As I noted last time, its looser approach comes as a disappointment after the meticulously-constructed Pepper – but what wouldn’t have? By making it a double The Beatles made it a totally different prospect, hard to compare with its predecessor.

I’ve never been interested in trying to construct that parallel-universe version of the album that’s only got fourteen or fifteen tracks on it. That’s not to say I haven’t had a go, just that I’m not interested. Mine goes like this, probably:

Back In The USSR / Dear Prudence / Glass Onion / Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da / Martha My Dear / Sexy Sadie / While My Guitar Gently Weeps / Happiness Is A Warm Gun / Birthday / Yer Blues / Blackbird / Revolution 1 / Honey Pie / Long Long Long / Good Night

or something, although it probably works better if you add ‘Hey Jude’ as a penultimate track and use the B-side version of ‘Revolution’. (Note also that I’ve kept the members’ contributions in proportion – so there are two George tracks, one Ringo track etc.) But that’s not the point – I don’t think that album’s as interesting as the one they put out. It’s worth noting that every time I read someone’s single-album cut, there’s at least one track they think is disposable that I think is wonderful, and vice versa. It’s far from clear-cut which are the ‘good’ ones.

I’ve cut tracks which I think are great because they’d seem a bit lightweight on a single-disc version of the album: the likes of ‘I Will,’ ‘Julia’ and ‘Cry Baby Cry’. The Beatles’ frivolous side is best captured on tracks like ‘Bungalow Bill’ and ‘Rocky Racoon’, but there’s probably not room for those either; ditto ‘Revolution 9’, but it’d be a terrible shame to lose an avant-garde experiment which has been smuggled into millions of homes. Christ, I’d even miss Ringo’s ‘You were in a car crash / And you lost your hair’ line from ‘Don’t Pass Me By’.

Most of all, you would lose what makes the album distinctive and enjoyable. When I first bought a second-hand vinyl copy, it kept me fascinated for weeks – there was so much to discover, such a breadth of styles, that you had to inhabit it. It’s so well constructed, like four mini-albums: it may not have a clear identity, but it does have continuity. I think the most facile criticism you can make of any double album is that it would’ve been a better single album: in terms of average track quality this is obviously true, but you may as well say that any given album would’ve made a better EP. You have to engage with what a double album is trying to do on its own terms and ask whether it succeeds. For the reasons above, I think The Beatles does succeed.

Even if it was a failure, I still wouldn’t exchange it for the single-album version. The Beatles covered so many of the bases of pop and rock in their careers together, it would feel wrong if they hadn’t made a double album. You see it on the discography and you think Oh yeah, there’s The Beatles’ double album. Of course there’s a Beatles double album. If it didn’t exist, then we would have to invent it. Only we couldn’t, because we are not The Beatles. So let’s be grateful it does exist.

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