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.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

The Beatles (1)

Up to this point, the challenge of this blog has been to avoid seeing each Beatles album as an inevitable progression towards Sgt. Pepper: now, the challenge is to avoid seeing them as steps in an inevitable decline. It’s less imperative because I do think their decline was inevitable: the collaboration that made The Beatles so good equally gave them a short shelf-life. The contrasting and complementary talents of Lennon and McCartney couldn’t have worked together indefinitely. However, at the time their fans presumably believed (or at least hoped) that the group was going to last longer than a couple more years, and the whole point of this blog is to try to view it through those eyes.

As noted, the group had just got a massive commercial second wind after Sgt. Pepper. Magical Mystery Tour may have tarnished their image slightly back home, but as Jonathan Gould’s excellent book Can’t Buy Me Love identifies, their reputation in America continued to grow. Having already been adopted by American teenagers as figureheads for their generation, as the decade wore on The Beatles came to be cherished by the counter-culture (including Charles Manson, who would be very interested in this album) – whilst continuing to enjoy major mainstream success. It’s notable that whilst in the UK The Beatles never bettered ‘She Loves You’ for singles sales, in America their biggest hit was ‘Hey Jude’. (The song is one of their very best, and nothing sounds quite as distinctively Beatles as that mid-paced downward progression). But it also suggests that the group had made a transition from pop to rock, and this probably seemed like their future at the time: big, long, grandstanding soul-inflected ballads with politicised scuzzy rock on the flipside.

Yet the album from the same sessions that followed it three months later was quite different. The original title of The Beatles (or ‘The White Album’ as it’s popularly known) was A Doll’s House, but this was dropped when Family got in first with a very similar title. This was bemoaned by Ian McDonald in Revolution in the Head, noting that it suited the interior, miscellaneous, often childlike quality of the songs inside. This is true, but I think the title and sleeve it ended up with are more telling. Sgt. Pepper had worked hard to build a new identity for the group, with a binding concept as well as a visual approach that matched the music inside. The tracks were typically disparate in style, but George Martin’s production and the kaleidoscopic, colourful sleeve created a sense of unity. And although I said before that the whimsical caricature of Sgt. Pepper is inaccurate, there’s something broadly optimistic and open about it: even when it’s downbeat, it’s prettily downbeat.

The Beatles couldn’t be more of a contrast. With its eponymous non-title and blank sleeve, the album seems to actively dodge identity. This is mirrored by the sprawl of tracks within: it’s as if they didn’t want to pin down a new direction, and so included every idea that seemed half-decent. The album flits from lightweight comedy to autobiographical rawness, from upbeat rock to hazy melancholia and, in its last two tracks, from pure chaos to a lush Hollywood lullaby. Always adept at assimilating new styles, here they often slide into pure pastiche, forgetting to add much of their own – another sign that they weren’t sure what to do next.

It’s often said that Lennon and McCartney’s songwriting interests were diverging towards the end of their career, but this record sees them both dabbling in each other’s traditional territory – Lennon contributing ‘Good Night’, McCartney bringing ‘Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?’ Also, both men were showing an interest in more straightforward guitar-based stuff again (‘Birthday’, ‘Yer Blues’) as well as stripped-down acoustic tracks (‘Blackbird’, ‘Julia’) and rambling comedy songs (‘Rocky Racoon’, ‘Bungalow Bill’).

The level of collaboration hadn’t dropped as far as often claimed. The album has often been described as a set of solo recordings on which the other members were employed as session musicians, and indeed there are solo Beatles songs with more Beatles involved than on several of the tracks here. Yet they didn’t just turn up and phone it in by any means. The new remasters reveal McCartney’s bassline on ‘Glass Onion’ to be one of his best, and clearly carefully considered: matching the mocking sneer of Lennon’s delivery, it stalks menacingly along behind it like hired muscle. Lennon returns the favour with a charming ragtime guitar solo on ‘Honey Pie’, although he was the least involved in tracks other than his own – notably, the peerless group performance that produced ‘Long, Long, Long’ (which gets my vote as Harrison’s best Beatles song) just involved the other three.

The extent to which McCartney was the glue holding the group together by this stage is evident in that he is on every track except ‘Julia’ and ‘Good Night’ (and his contribution to ‘Revolution 9’ was buried in the layers). He was the only one to pitch in on Starr’s ‘Don’t Pass Me By’ and turned up for all Harrison’s tracks, unlike Lennon who only did half. That said, even he sometimes got bored with his colleagues’ songs, drifting out of the ‘Yer Blues’ sessions to record ‘Mother Nature’s Son’ on his own (one of four tracks on the album where he is the only Beatle present, a solipsistic habit which you can imagine annoyed the others). Yet Starr, perhaps conveniently forgetting that halfway through the sessions he got fed up and quit the group for a week, recently remembered the album as a welcome return to group performances.

The album is great (I’ll go into just why next time), but feels like a backward step after the multi-layered productions of 1966 and 1967. Perhaps they felt there wasn’t anywhere else to take that approach, perhaps it was a lot of work and they just couldn’t be arsed. A mild rift with George Martin meant that he didn’t produce large chunks of it – the only Beatles record apart from ‘Let It Be’ where he was absent. The quantity of tracks seems almost an apology for the drop in quality. The result sounds a lot more like the guitar music that’s come since, especially indie and lo-fi stuff: its sound is more attainable than that of Pepper and so it’s arguably been more influential in the long run. But the fact is, if you were going to get into that pointless argument over whether The Beatles were as good as Bach or whatever, you’d go in armed with Eleanor Rigby and Strawberry Fields Forever, not this stuff.