FOUR OF US

BeatlesMomentary escapism from a world that seems to relish serving up a fresh dish of despair and despondency to its population every passing year seems an essential panacea right now. It can be manifested in many different ways, specifically tailored to suit the unique tastes of each individual, and its position on the scale of trivia is immaterial. Whatever simple pleasure makes you happy is worth indulging in at times like these. During Lockdown Mk I and beyond, I found walking a friend’s dog once a week was the best breath of fresh air and the most unpretentious reward for a week entombed indoors on offer; and even with the present-tense pandemic receding (albeit not its long-term legacy), the latest crisis has necessitated the need for time-out, whether that be a few hours away from social media – or penning a post. Dog-sitting the same pooch that provided light relief when outdoor excursions were being rationed has become an occasional outlet of late, but the home I dog-sit in also contains another window into a world a million miles from 2022 – well, 53 years, to be precise.

When Peter Jackson’s ‘Get Back’ project was premiered on the Disney + digital channel at the back end of last year, it was accompanied by a deluge of YouTube reviews from people who had hurriedly subscribed to a streaming service usually patronised by parents to little ‘uns obsessed with ‘Frozen’ and the like. Suddenly, it had become attractive to an entirely different demographic, one fired by the media previews of the cleaned-up, Hi-Definition incarnation of footage that had been slogging around the bootleg circuit in appalling picture quality for decades. Not prepared to temporarily add another channel to the dozens I never watch, I was waiting for an eventual DVD release to finally view a series spread into three tantalising movie-length episodes; but dog-sitting in a house containing Disney + has given me an opportunity to catch up with something most Beatles fans rushed to watch together a few months back. And it was worth the wait as, for once, the hype is justified.

For the few still wallowing in ignorance, ‘Get Back’ was the original title of what eventually became the Beatles’ uneven swansong, ‘Let it Be’. At the beginning of 1969, less than two months after releasing the White Album, the band sought to capitalise on the recent energising experience of recording the ‘Hey Jude’ promo, with its novel audience participation; eager to keep the creative juices flowing, Paul McCartney felt this might be a way for the band to return to live performance. Director Michael Lindsay-Hogg had just filmed ‘The Rolling Stones’ Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus’, showing there were new means of playing live for acts that had been scarred by screaming girls on the touring treadmill. Conceived as a TV documentary of the band rehearsing new numbers that would climax with a live show before an invited audience, the ambitious ‘Get Back’ didn’t work out as planned and was swiftly reduced to a posthumous album and movie, released a year after its making and at a moment when the former Fab Four were not exactly on speaking terms. It wasn’t the most impressive of obituaries, and the cynical way the film was edited by Lindsay-Hogg established a narrative that had remained intact for half-a-century.

True, there was an infamous ‘argument’ between Paul McCartney and George Harrison captured on camera; true, George walked out on the band for a few days thereafter; true, the chilly environs of Twickenham film studios early in the morning were not especially conducive to harmonious vibes; true, McCartney came across as an overbearing martinet; true, the constant presence of Yoko Ono at John Lennon’s side appeared to be an impediment to recreating the spirit of the band that the project was intended to deliver. All of this was portrayed with funereal finality in the original movie and the fact none of the ex-Beatles in the years following its release had a good word to say about it helped perpetuate the narrative seemingly forevermore. Its sole saving grace was the legendary ‘rooftop concert’ on a cold, wet January morning atop the Apple HQ on Savile Row; but opportunities to see it after the movie’s 1970 release were limited to clips in documentaries or bootleg copies of an early 80s home video version of the film, with the piss-poor visuals and sound quality adding to the negative perception of the enterprise.

Plans to restore and re-release ‘Let it Be’ in recent decades have been repeatedly stymied by one ex-Beatle (or ex-Beatle widow) or another, leaving the film as a bit of an absent friend in the Beatles’ story. The unexpected invitation for director-turned-documentary-maker Peter Jackson to wade through hundreds of hours of unused footage from the ‘Let it Be’ sessions was probably inspired by the astonishing job he did on presenting the First World War as a full-colour conflict in ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’. For Beatles fan Jackson, all his Christmases came at once as he took on the challenge of retelling a tale that had never been fully told and making it the kind of visual and musical experience that the 1970 film failed so badly to achieve. The global pandemic delayed the scheduled 50th anniversary release, albeit giving Jackson and his team more breathing space to develop new ways of improving the audio and expanding the running time. The first results of their efforts were trailed online last year and the thumbs-up was universal – it looked and sounded amazing. Gone were the grainy, murky washed-out shades of the tenth-generation VHS versions and in came colour of the Blu-ray variety, HD-sharp with a clarity that put the viewer in the room with the Fab Four – a laughing, convivial Fab Four contradicting the hand-me-down myth of the ‘Let it Be’ project.

The series shows that the shared sense of humour which had been such a vital component of what made those four individuals gel as a unit hadn’t been dealt a mortal blow by Yoko’s presence after all. Far from being savagely sardonic and disinterested, Lennon appears as lively and witty as ever; moreover, McCartney comes across as less of a control freak and more of an artist at the peak of his powers, oozing magic melodies from every pore. There were concerns Jackson’s facelift might present a sanitised rewrite of the story, but moments of tension remain in the final cut, especially the day after George’s exit; when it looks as if Lennon won’t be showing-up either, the horrible realisation dawns on McCartney that everything might be about to collapse. The camera zooms in on his tearful countenance as he almost whispers ‘And then there were two’. It’s a remarkably moving moment.

As well as the tracks that ended up on ‘Let it Be’, the January 1969 sessions also feature numerous songs that constituted a large chunk of ‘Abbey Road’, not to mention a sizeable amount of material that would only see the light of day on the post-split solo albums of 1970 and ’71. When one hears The Beatles work through Lennon’s ‘Gimme Some Truth’ or Harrison’s ‘All Things Must Pass’, it’s immediately evident these great songs would’ve been even greater had the four recorded them together. Far from being the creative cul-de-sac of legend, the ‘Get Back’ sessions find the band in the thick of a stunning purple patch; it also underlines the theory that all their finest material – even what became solo stuff – was written when they were still together. One of the joys of the fly-on-the-wall element of ‘Get Back’ is witnessing the genesis of songs happen before one’s eyes. The title track itself appears out of nowhere as a chugging McCartney riff, morphs into a satirical comment on Enoch Powell’s recent ‘rivers of blood’ speech, and gradually takes shape before our eyes and ears as the song we’re all familiar with. It’s a real privilege to share the journey.

‘Get Back’ is as essential an addition to the Beatles legacy as anything released during the band’s lifetime, and far superior to Apple’s endless repackaging and needless remixing of material already available. What’s incredible to realise when watching is not one of the band is yet 30 as we see them in the dazzling twilight of their time together as cultural ambassadors in whose hands our culture was safe; and when Ringo gazes awe-struck at Paul picking gems out of thin air at the keyboard, his touching comment to his band-mate, ‘I could watch you play the piano all day’, sums up a special chemistry of which we all continue to be grateful beneficiaries. And it’s certainly worth reconnecting with the best mankind can offer at a moment when all we seem to be surrounded by is the worst.

© The Editor

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ON THE ROAD

Okay, I admit it; I did it. I wasn’t competing with the hyperactive elbows of Japanese tourists, for it wasn’t a sticky summer’s day, but a chilly one in February. All the same, like everybody else making a journey that must be a perennial headache for the good motorists of St John’s Wood, I wasn’t going from A to B for anything other than the sake of a photograph – and in my case, the blurred, out-of-focus product of a cheap camera I had to wait days to develop at Boots. It was 1988 and I crossed the zebra on Abbey Road. Recalling the evidence, I look like a black stick insect captured from a considerable distance by an undercover spy new to the job, closer to a clandestine portrait of a Cold War suspect than a faithful recreation of one of the most famous record sleeves of all time.

Of course, The Beatles had the clout to close the road and prevent traffic from getting in the way – for a few minutes, at least. And they could call on a professional photographer with a decent camera, someone who didn’t have to worry about being run-over. From all accounts, there was no awareness on the part of the four individuals concerned that this photo shoot was a landmark occasion any more than the music they took a break from recording that Friday morning required a fanfare. In the pre-digital camera-phone age, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr must have been among the most photographed people on the planet; and this was treated as just one more shoot of many. Like the alluring blur of the mini-skirted lower half of the anonymous girl passing the street sign on the back of the imminent album, this stuff happened without ceremony.

As we career towards the end of yet another year in an era without an epoch, there has been the usual roll-call of cultural anniversaries to mark; and it seems apt that a weekend in which a cantankerous contemporary has embarked upon the drum solo that genuinely does never end, ‘Abbey Road’ should return to the top of the album charts – back for the first time since early 1970. When the LP was originally dethroned by ‘Led Zeppelin II’ (after a solitary week’s pre-Christmas displacement by ‘Let it Bleed’), fans were unaware John Lennon had expressed his desire to call it a Beatle day the previous autumn; with a movie and accompanying album to come in the spring, new manager Allen Klein was eager to maximise his investment. Therefore, ‘Abbey Road’ was marketed upon its September 1969 release as the latest instalment rather than the final chapter.

Considering the frenetic speed at which rock and pop moved and changed in the second half of the 60s, it’s perhaps no surprise that the output of the acts dictating the pace was so breathless. Of the big three – Beatles, Stones, Dylan – only the latter had taken a ‘year out’ since his debut album, and being missing in action during 1967 was largely a consequence of Mr Zimmerman’s mysterious motorcycle accident the year before. ‘Abbey Road’ was released just ten months after the sprawling double epic of the White Album, and the brief gap between two LPs had been bridged by a couple of chart-topping singles that stood alone from album inclusion. Oh, and the opening months of 1969 had also consisted of slogging through the aborted ‘Get Back’ project before its corpse was reanimated by Phil Spector as ‘Let it Be’ a year later.

So, yes, there wasn’t much slacking on the creative front. That said, John and Yoko’s globe-trotting peace campaign – which also encompassed an instant anthem and a live show in Toronto – had drained the Lennon juices somewhat. Although ‘Abbey Road’ opens with his gutsy homage to Chuck Berry, ‘Come Together’, and side one closes with ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’ – a blistering excursion into swampy Hard Rock – Lennon is often AWOL on the LP. Yes, this enabled McCartney to progress unimpeded as he constructed the glorious song cycle that spans most of side two, but it crucially gave Harrison the platform to effectively launch his solo career with perhaps his most peerless twosome – ‘Something’ and ‘Here Comes the Sun’. Without either of those songs, it’s hard to imagine ‘Abbey Road’ possessing half its enduring magic.

The aforementioned ‘song cycle’, which begins with ‘You Never Give Me Your Money’ until pausing for a brief breath before resuming with ‘Golden Slumbers’, was a canny way of stitching together a few half-finished numbers that nevertheless shine in the medley, such as Lennon’s acerbic pair, ‘Mean Mr Mustard’ and ‘Polythene Pam’. But it is McCartney’s mastery of melody that carries the conceit beyond any accusations of over-ambition, making the listening experience a joyous immersion in pop perfection utterly free from the self-indulgence that often typified the twenty-minute songs marking many of the Prog monoliths to come; there’s rarely a dry eye in this house by the time we reach ‘Carry That Weight’.

The celebrated duelling guitars that accelerate the climax of this 16-minute suite are followed by one final moment of melodious calm before the whole journey is brought to a memorable end with a symphonic sweep that should have closed the album, and indeed the decade, as a fitting farewell from its most generous cultural ambassadors. Instead, the silence before the needle meets the label is eventually gatecrashed by a short, throwaway ditty called ‘Her Majesty’; its presence was due to the accident of an engineer, but the sudden and unexpected appearance of the track appealed to the band’s sense of humour and they left it in there without announcing it on the sleeve’s track-listing. Sometimes I laugh along; sometimes, like ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ or ‘Octopus’s Garden’, it intrudes on the mood. But, as with all Beatle albums, there’s at least one song in there with someone’s name on it.

The slick, polished production of the album was at odds with the back-to-basics ‘roots’ approach that characterised ‘Let it Be’, something that was chic currency in 1969 courtesy of American acts like The Band and Credence Clearwater Revival; but one could argue the influence of ‘Abbey Road’ paved the way for the equally slick early 70s output of the Laurel Canyon aristocracy that went on to dominate US FM radio, as well as laying the foundations for British purveyors of technical excellence during that period such as 10cc – not to mention a 1973 product of the same studio, ‘Dark Side of the Moon’.

What sounded over-produced and artificial to the ears of contemporary critics weighed-down with Blues Rock baggage doesn’t distract from the quality of the songs where 21st century ears are concerned, however. ‘Abbey Road’ sounds like timeless pop at the peak of its powers – and one entirely free from any negative vibes; it’s a euphoric celebration of life set to music. No wonder its popularity is undimmed today. It contains the very factor at the heart of all the best Beatles music, and one that has probably kept them crucial to listening habits for more generations than merely their own – the ineffable human spirit at its most irresistible. The Beatles capture that better than anyone else. They managed to imprint it on vinyl and have continued to share it with us ever since. That’s quite a gift from them to us. Cheers, lads.

© The Editor

CRYSTAL BALLS

How much unexpected meetings or chance encounters that lead to seismic life changes are indeed down to chance or are merely inevitable moves in a preordained plan depends, I guess, on your view of man as either an autonomous animal in control of his own destiny or as a mere pawn in God’s grand scheme. The Osmonds certainly fell on ‘the plan’ side of the argument, as the title of their 1973 concept album testified – though why ‘Long-Haired Lover from Liverpool’ fitted in to His big idea remains an extremely mystifying example of the Almighty moving in a very mysterious way.

Sticking with all things Merseyside, take 6 July 1957. Skiffle is the first of many teenage fads to come, and a church fête gives The Kids a chance to strum their washboards amidst the Morris dancers and a display by the City of Liverpool Police Dogs. On this occasion, The Kids are a bunch of school pals called The Quarrymen, led by a 16-year-old named John Lennon. The cocky leader of the pack shares a mutual friend with an equally overconfident adolescent called Paul McCartney; said friend introduces the most successful song-writing partnership in musical history to each other for the first time that day. And so the wheels of a cultural revolution are slowly set in motion with neither party remotely aware of it. How could they be?

It’s quite possible McCartney might have decided not to accept his pal’s offer to visit Woolton that summer’s day in 1957; after all, Macca had only just turned 15, still at a young enough age to be susceptible to other offers characteristic of a 1950s British childhood. If he’d gone fishing or train-spotting or had indulged in a jumpers-for-goalposts kick-about, the world would have kept on turning and none of these activities would have altered it, unlike the meeting at that church fête, which did – in many ways, for all of us. One could argue the mutual friend of Lennon & McCartney – Ivan Vaughan – was a pivotal figure in modern history, yet he could just as easily not have been. On such wafer-thin paper is history written.

The tempting ‘What if?’ scenario has generated many speculative and imaginative alternatives to historical events over the years: think of a novel such as Robert Harris’s ‘Fatherland’ taking place in a parallel universe 1960s, twenty years after Nazi Germany won World War II. Counterfactual history approaches the concept with a more academic eye, though many historians see it as an essentially pointless exercise; Nazi Germany didn’t win WWII, but was that always destined to be the final score on the eve of kick-off?

Certain figures whose actions changed the course of world history often appear to have led charmed lives, as though there was indeed a plan in mind for them. As Andrew Roberts highlights in his new biography of Winston Churchill, the Great British icon was born two months premature, suffered a near-fatal bout of pneumonia as a child and was stabbed as a schoolboy; he regularly diced with death as a soldier, and civilian life was punctuated by three car crashes and two plane crashes, all of which he survived along with numerous strokes and heart attacks. Pure chance or preordained?

If one believes our destinies are already mapped out for us before we even arrive in the world, one could almost adopt a petulant attitude to our apparently powerless part in directing those destinies. What’s the point in trying if we’re only acting out actions penned in advance anyway, being little more than marionettes whose every move is dictated by some celestial puppet master? If whatever we do makes no difference to the eventual outcome, we could consciously live a life of inactive isolation, surrendering to sloth and deliberately avoiding effort altogether. Then again, by doing so we may well be merely fulfilling a designated role after all. It’s a conundrum if life seems frustratingly impervious to our attempts to improve it, as though we permanently sleep on the wrong side of the bed.

We’ve all retrospectively recognised moments in life when we’ve stood at a crossroads and chosen a specific route from several options available to us. These options could have been deliberated upon at length beforehand or we may have just thrown caution to the wind with an ‘eeny meeny miny moe’ moment. If the consequences of our decision fail to deliver, it’s unavoidable that years later we ponder on what might have happened had we chosen one of the other options. Middle-age is especially prone to such hindsight musings, though only if we don’t find what we’re looking for once we get there. And, of course, there’s always the nagging belief that what we didn’t do would have turned out so much better than what we actually did. If only…

When constructing these parallel universe lives, it pays to pause and recall the saving graces that emerged from even the darkest of times, those times we become convinced life could have done without. In my own experience, feline and canine companions came out of a period in the 1990s I often wish I could erase from memory, yet both cat and dog long outlived its merciful end, enriching my existence for years afterwards; without that painful period, I would have been denied the joy they brought. Therefore, I accept it was necessary – my own personal 40 days and nights in the wilderness. And I’m sure we’ve all had them.

I’ve never visited a fortune-teller nor bought into their mystical shtick, not out of any inflexible opinion that they pedal pure hokum, but mainly because I genuinely have no desire to see into the future – even if it were possible. Should the crystal ball show me something I don’t want to see, I’d be convinced the future is already arranged and it’d be futile me trying to change it. And feeling as though someone else is scripting that future puts one back into the worst kind of childhood mindset, trapped in a world where all-powerful beings, from parents to teachers, are in control of everything that happens to you. Your input is negligible in terms of impact compared to theirs, so why bother?

One problem with accepting the preordained notion of life as a readymade plan is that, unlike the end result of WWII, it doesn’t always go to plan. Sometimes a luminous path ahead that certainly feels preordained as it generates good vibrations is abruptly blocked and we are rerouted against our will, back down a darker avenue as the trite ‘well, it just wasn’t meant to be’ excuse is trotted out. One could either behave like a senior Met officer and lock one’s self in one’s car when confronted by an unexpected and unpleasant turn of events or one could face them head on. But the latter depends on whether or not one has faith in the possibility of a reward for doing so; and faith, like love, trust and hope, is not always the most accessible of subscriptions when life’s size-nine’s have your groin (and your crystal balls) in their sights. But maybe that’s the fate that always awaits we fools who (like Blanche DuBois) still believe in magic…

(https://www.amazon.co.uk/Jack-English-Cat-called-English/dp/1717944809/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1533553266&sr=1-1)

© The Editor

THE ANNIVERSARY WALTZER

With one especially grim event dominating the headlines at the expense of everything else this week (an event that has already been covered in three out of the last four posts), I am actively seeking alternative subjects to lift the spirits a little and serve as a necessary distraction. A good anniversary ordinarily suffices, so why not? Long-term readers may recall a post from last summer in which I marked the fiftieth anniversary of the release of The Beatles’ ‘Revolver’, so it seems only fitting I should follow suit with the half-century of that landmark LP’s sequel. The actual anniversary fell yesterday (May 26), but what’s in a day? And what can I add to all the endless column inches that have been written about ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’? Well, I’ll give it my best shot.

As I was born the year the album was released, I am of the generation that grew up in its shadow; as a tiny tot watching Slade and Sweet on ‘Top of the Pops’, this curious, rather quaint relic of another era resting in my parents’ LP collection hardly seemed relevant and yet it remained the yardstick by which innovative pop music was measured throughout the 1970s – or at least until a new generation temporarily usurped the reverential millstone it seemed to have become around the necks of anyone seeking to take pop forward with the same hunger The Beatles themselves had achieved a decade earlier.

It was hard for an eleven-year-old viewing ‘Are Friends Electric?’ on TOTP and rightly seeing it as the defining cutting-edge sound of the fast-moving moment to appreciate the impact of ‘Sgt Pepper’s’ on the listening public twelve years previously. It seemed to have no bearing on what I was hearing. After all, I had been raised in a pop culture in which there were clear demarcation lines – Serious Rock ala Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Genesis in the album charts/Pop ala Abba, 10cc and ELO in the singles charts; it mattered not that both camps were capable of matching the other when it came to their respective musical merits; the way the divisions were sold to the record-buying public was a direct result of the late 60s split ‘Sgt Pepper’s’ indirectly led to.

Earlier in the same year that ‘Sgt Pepper’s’ was released, the last pop package tour of any real note took place; coming to a theatre near you for the princely sum of a few shillings, it was possible to see a bill featuring The Walker Brothers, Cat Stevens, Engelbert Humperdinck, The Move – and The Jimi Hendrix Experience. If it seems an inconceivable line-up now, it began to dawn on those who attended the tour that it was pretty inconceivable even then. But it’s not hard to see why some enterprising promoter put the bill together. There was no ‘Rock Circuit’ then and no festival schedule of the kind we take for granted today.

The Beatles, The Stones and everyone who had made a mark in the mid-60s had all trod the boards with multiple showbiz crooners on such packages; that was the way things had been done since Rock ‘n’ Roll had been imported into the UK in the mid-50s. It was only when it became obvious that very different audiences were buying records that had all been labelled ‘Pop’ that the error of the promoter’s ways became apparent.

As late as 1968, in the BBC TV presentation of Cream’s farewell concert at the Albert Hall, the band are constantly referred to by the narrator throughout as ‘Pop’. ‘Rock’ as a term that drew a distinction between King Crimson and Clodagh Rodgers appears to have come in shortly afterwards. But the release of ‘Sgt Pepper’s’ on the eve of ‘The Summer of Love’ marked the beginning of this division; the breadth of ambition and refusal to be constricted by what could and couldn’t be done saw the Fab Four blur boundaries and serve 1967 up in one all-encompassing Psychedelic soufflé. There was so much to choose from on there that other artists took separate snippets from it that they could build careers around without needing to acknowledge what they didn’t get.

For everyone who enjoyed ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’ or ‘With a Little Help from My Friends’, there were just as many who opted for ‘Within You, Without You’ and ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’. After ‘Sgt Pepper’s’, few attempted to present such a wide canvas again. Sub-genres abounded in its wake and there was no unifying force drawing all those disparate elements together once John, Paul, George and Ringo had abdicated.

The effective ‘trailer’ for what The Beatles had up their sleeves had come at the beginning of 1967 when, amidst rumours that their retirement from the stage meant they were finished, they released the double A-sided single, ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’/’Penny Lane’. The initial idea for a concept album on the theme of childhood that these two tracks were the intended starting pistol for meant they never made it to ‘Sgt Pepper’s’ when the concept was abandoned. McCartney’s breezy, optimistic ode to a nondescript Liverpool street possessed the same uplifting suburban sing-a-long spirit as The Kinks’ ‘Sunny Afternoon’ from the year before, whereas Lennon’s dreamy, druggy, surrealistic reimagining of a childhood haunt adhered to no previous formula on 45. It was telling the single was kept from the top spot by Engelbert’s ‘Release Me’; but as a taster for what was to come, it suggested The Beatles were far from finished.

When the long-awaited follow-up to ‘Revolver’ hit the record racks at the end of May 1967, it seems ridiculous now that the gap between the two albums was less than ten months; but the industry as it had been up to that point demanded two LPs a year and perhaps three or four stand-alone singles in addition. The Beatles yet again refused to bow to convention; they didn’t need to; they were imbued with such confidence and, yes, arrogance, that they could do whatever the hell they liked. The sleeve of the album, so instantly recognisable that it has been parodied more times than I care to mention, reflected this attitude; as did the fact they printed the lyrics on the back of it and that they didn’t release any of its songs as singles. They didn’t need to. The album sold as many copies as any single would have and in turn transformed the LP into what would become the premier art form of the next decade.

What’s easy to forget in the glut of anniversary waffle that will no doubt swamp the media over the next week or so is that this was a record release categorised as ‘Pop’ that was produced by four young men, none of whom were yet thirty, and yet was as adventurous a recording as any emanating from fields the critics had previously praised, such as Avant-Garde Classical or Jazz. It demonstrated Pop could outdo any other genre, however fragmented Pop itself would soon become as a result of the dazzling variety The Beatles were offering.

In an age when the Tin Pan Alley sensibilities The Beatles helped overthrow have been reinstated with little in the way of resistance, it’s somewhat sad to realise that half-a-century ago, the Svengali had been shown the door and the creative lunatics had taken over the musical asylum. To be an inmate there remains preferable to Care in Cowell’s Community.

© The Editor

IT WAS 50 YEARS AGO TODAY

RevolverFive years previously, the revolution had begun under the national radar, in noisy, sweaty, cramped, claustrophobic clubs of a kind that would provoke a coronary in today’s average Health & Safety inspector; when it broke over-ground, it transplanted the treadmill to the theatres, where it topped bills still in the tradition of variety packages, sharing a stage with wartime crooners and comics. By 1966, Music Hall was dead and something once dismissed by the highbrow as pubescent bubblegum had become the most inventive mainstream in pop culture history as well as usurping Jazz, Folk and Avant-Garde Classical as the critical choice; and it was time for its troubadours to catch their breaths, to enjoy the hard-won fruits of their labours and take on the personas of foppish aristocrats. Thankfully for the listener, this pause as performing seals enabled the acts in question to redraw the landscape and remove the limits on the sky.

It was into this fertile cultural environment that the four young men who had spearheaded the revolution unleashed their most adventurous and enduring contribution to it, exactly half-a-century ago today. Competition was fierce the day ‘Revolver’ hit the record racks. The Rolling Stones had released ‘Aftermath’ four months earlier, breaking the 11-minute mark with the track ‘Goin’ Home’ and shaking off the R&B straitjacket courtesy of Brian Jones’ mastery of unusual instrumentation such as the marimba and dulcimer; meanwhile, The Beach Boys and Bob Dylan had thrown down an awesome gauntlet on the same day in May, with ‘Pet Sounds’ and ‘Blonde on Blonde’ respectively. Only eight months had passed since The Beatles had taken a great leap forward with ‘Rubber Soul’, and pop was still coming to terms with that when its follow-up appeared.

If the distorted, unsmiling faces gracing the sleeve of ‘Rubber Soul’ had called time on the gurning mop-tops, ‘Revolver’ hammered the final nail in the Beatlemania coffin. Not only was the disarming monochrome collage on its cover a signifier that the Fab Four had moved on, but much of the music contained within it had a cold, sneering harshness both in its lyrical content and its spiky guitar sound. The warmth-free guitars were merely one element of a beguiling sonic tapestry, however – one that defied the limitations that prompted the band to quit the grinding touring circuit shortly after its release. Sitars, saxophones, French horns, cellos, and most significantly of all, tape loops ala Musique Concrete, were poured into a melting pot that captured the sound of artists whose withdrawal into lysergic escape pods had sharpened their edges rather than softened them.

Bravely giving George Harrison the album’s opener, Lennon and McCartney encouraged their junior partner to let rip on ‘Taxman’, a snarling critique of the Labour Government’s punitive tax regime that appeared to be punishing the generation that was selling the country abroad as the Swinging capital of the western world; Harrison even name-checked both Wilson and Heath in the lyrics. ‘Eleanor Rigby’, track No.2, was once compared to a Thomas Hardy novel by poet Allen Ginsberg, and the fact that the uncrowned kings of the new social aristocracy could take time out to acknowledge the lonely, unloved and left behind is to their credit. Perhaps the most radical chart-topper of the decade, the wretched life condensed into ‘Eleanor Rigby’ also reflects the vogue for characteristically English social commentary in the pop lyric as the leading lights turned away from America and looked inwards; the Stones and (especially) The Kinks were doing likewise at the same time.

‘I’m Only Sleeping’ is Lennon at his most lethargic and simultaneously inspired, an ode to doing bugger all after five years of working his arse off. At a point when he was being crucified across the Atlantic for daring to compare the global adulation of his band to Christ-like devotion, Lennon revelled in a rare moment of LSD-assisted idleness and produced a hazy, reverse-tape masterpiece in the process. He is similarly detached from reality in ‘She Said, She Said’, a precursor to the following year’s ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ in its dreamy evocation of childhood innocence recaptured via some recreational mind expansion. McCartney’s two standout tracks after ‘Eleanor Rigby’ – ‘Here There and Everywhere’ and ‘For No One’ – both display a melodic genius that was McCartney’s answer to The Beach Boys’ ‘God Only Knows’, as well as setting Brian Wilson yet another challenge – albeit one he was sadly unable to rise to, courtesy of a mental breakdown in 1967.

Much-maligned, yet actually a song that grows more likeable in its charming, nursery rhyme simplicity with age, ‘Yellow Submarine’ couldn’t have been sung by anyone other than Ringo Starr, while ‘Good Day Sunshine’ evokes the unique beauty of an English summer’s day with the same throwback to old-school Tin Pan Alley as Ray Davies had employed on ‘Sunny Afternoon’ the same summer as ‘Revolver’ appeared. Lennon’s ‘And Your Bird Can Sing’, as with Harrison’s ‘I Want to Tell You’ and sitar-heavy raga-rocker ‘Love You To’, all exhibit an icy alienation from the loveable mop-top image that must have stopped the screaming knicker-wetters in their tracks in 1966. No wonder they turned to The Monkees six months later.

McCartney’s ‘Got To Get You into My Life’ is allegedly him addressing the peer pressure within The Beatles regarding delving into Acid, whereas Lennon’s ‘Doctor Robert’ is supposedly describing the man who dispensed the drug to the pop stars of the day; the former is a brilliant example of how influential contemporary black music continued to be on the band, especially Motown and Stax – something that is backed up by the story that The Beatles toyed with relocating to the Deep South when preparing to record the album.

The icing on the ‘Revolver’ cake was the closing track, ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, a song in which John Lennon never sounded more removed from the everyman persona he and the band had represented during their initial rise. His own request to producer George Martin was that he wanted his voice to resemble the Dalai Lama calling to his followers from a mountain top, but the mosaic of unearthly sounds that surround his disembodied vocal point the way towards Psychedelia. Within pop culture at the time, only the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (and its most visionary member, Delia Derbyshire) were experimenting with similarly surreal soundscapes; that the biggest pop group in the world, who only a year before had produced the standard ‘Yesterday’, chose to close their most ambitious album to date with such an ‘out there’ track is typical of how The Beatles gleefully abused their position as Members of the British Empire.

England had won the World Cup six days before ‘Revolver’ was released; a sense that the country was riding a wave of optimism for the first time since the demoralising experience of Suez ten years previously runs through the record, yet the band equally never sounded more contemptuous or cynical of their status and of the monster they had created. That said, The Beatles were approaching the peak of their creative powers and the world was listening; it gave them carte-blanche to go where no band had gone before; and no member of the band was older than 26. Fifty years on, one cannot but be impressed.

© The Editor