Note: substantially edited after viewing of the new Get Back documentary series by Peter Jackson.
David Remnick, long-serving editor of the New Yorker, recently described the Beatles as ‘perhaps the biggest pop-cultural phenomenon of the twentieth century’. Yeah… who or what could really compete with them for that title? Some have said that Western consciousness was the most unified it’s ever been when Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released in the summer of 1967 and radio stations across Europe and North America (not to mention a lot of the rest of the world) played it from beginning to end on repeat, with many of those listening experiencing a kind of ‘psychic shiver’, ‘a cinematic dissolve from one Zeitgeist to another’, as Ian MacDonald put it. Certainly in music… There can’t be an achievement that matches theirs, can there? They professionally recorded music for not much more than 7 years, between 1962 and 1970, and made 13 core studio albums in that time, nearly all of which revolutionised the artform, if not wider society, in one way or another. They are widely credited with originating the idea of a rock band that writes its own material, and with being the first to really give pop music high-art credibility. Most musical artists more-or-less stick to one genre; they explored and combined just about all genres existent in their cultural surroundings, and pioneered new ones. Most of the acknowledged great singers and bands have maybe 10 or 15 songs you could call 'classics', if that - the Beatles... Is it less than 100? Sometimes it seems like almost all their songs fall in that category. The list of other amazing artists who got into music or radically changed musical direction because of them is almost the same as a list of all the great musical artists since 1964. What’s more, they are among the few artists in modern history, of any artform, that have appealed about equally to world-weary Arts grads and cheery bricklayers, to aged classical conductors and teenage sports fanatics. There was in their time almost no part of the world, nor level of society, where they were not loved, and that’s not far off being true now, more than 50 years later.
I have met some people who don’t understand the fuss. They somehow know only a few Beatles songs – it’s usually the likes of ‘Yellow Submarine’ and ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’, and maybe 'Hey Jude' – and they don’t mind them, but they certainly don’t feel motivated to explore further. Arghh, I want to say to these people, if like the whole fucking world thinks this band are where it’s at, don’t you think it might just possibly be worth expending a tiny bit more exploratory effort?! Anyone who really knows their Beatles knows that the album tracks are better than the singles; indeed, the Beatles are also generally recognised as having been in large measure responsible for elevating the album above the single as the standard unit of musical consumption. With the Beatles, it’s all about the back-catalogue – and the journey! Start with their very earliest recorded material, and listen all the way through to their very last. And then tell me what other artistic journey compares to this one. The great Sinatra sang for 50 years, and probably developed less in that whole time than they did from one album to the next. What I want to do here is talk about elements of the Beatles’ story that stand out for me as, perhaps, clues to what it was that enabled them to do such extraordinary things. Of course the Beatles are a well-covered topic, and this is, I’m sure, an oft-taken approach to thinking and writing about them; no doubt in most, if not all cases I’ll be saying things others have said before me. Still, let me have my fun, and perhaps I'll make a connection or two that could do with being made more often. 1.
I’ll start at the beginning, or somewhere near it. It’s somehow not widely known, but the original bassist of the Beatles, and probably the person who proposed their name (albeit with a slightly different spelling), died suddenly of a brain hemorrhage about a year before they became famous. His name was Stuart Sutcliffe.
He had in fact left the band shortly beforehand to focus on his painting career. Following one of the band’s spells in Hamburg, he’d enrolled at the art college there, studying under Eduardo Poalozzi, who said he was one of his best students. The other Beatles had hoped he’d change his mind and rejoin at some point. In April 1962, they arrived in Hamburg for more gigs, and eager to see him again, only to discover that he had died a few days earlier. He was 21. He was very close to his bandmates, especially Lennon, who he’d studied with at Liverpool College of Art, and I think also lived with for a year or two. The surviving Beatles mentioned him often over the years. They featured him on the cover of Sgt. Pepper too.
The photographer Astrid Kirchherr, who was engaged to be married to Sutcliffe and informed the band of his death, took photos of them in their state of grief. I feel very strange about these photos. On the one hand, I feel they in some way exploit grief, and there’s something wrong about that. On the other, they do strike me as astonishingly beautiful pictures, which capture not just a sad thing, grief – but also such depths of care and love. Those of course always are corollaries of grief.
I think of Laurie Anderson’s film Heart of a Dog, in which she talks about how we feel love, and life itself, most intensely in the moment of bereavement, and how that intensity can carry through into our subsequent lives, enabling us to appreciate and love more deeply. ‘Collateral beauty’ is the term used in a recent, rather terrible Hollywood film of that name. I don’t know, of course, but – thinking especially of the song ‘In My Life’ – I wonder whether that early experience of losing one of their own didn’t play a huge role in shaping the extremely close and special relationships the Beatles had with each other, as well as the outlook they had on the world. (Well, Ringo, I should say, didn’t come along until a little bit later, but no doubt this event had, through its effects on the other three, its effects on him too.)
‘I thought their music was rubbish.’ So said producer George Martin about the day he decided to give the Beatles a record deal. Why did he give them a record deal then? Well, he said it was because of their ‘tremendous charisma’. He added: ‘When you are with them, you are all the better for being with them and, when they leave, you feel a loss. I fell in love with them. It's as simple as that.’ Sound engineer Norman Smith, who was working with Martin at the time of the audition, recounted how Martin ranted at them about how dismal their playing was, and then said, ‘I've laid into you for quite a long time. You haven't responded. Is there anything you don't like?’ To which Harrison replied, ‘Well, for a start, I don't like your tie.’ Smith recalled, ‘For the next 15 to 20 minutes they were pure entertainment. I had tears running down my face.’
I’ve seen quite a few interviews with bands, but I don’t think I’ve seen any that match those of the Beatles, particularly in their earlier years, for sheer playfulness. Those interviews – aside from the one in which Lennon casually remarked the Beatles were bigger than Jesus – are largely forgotten now, but I really think that they played about as big a role in making the band famous as their music did. They seemed, when in public, disinclined to take anything particularly seriously. The cameras, the world’s attention, the magnitude of the occasion seemed to have almost no affect on them. They were like four mates in a pub, witty and silly, preoccupied with teasing their interviewers and each other, happily riffing off each other.
Though it perhaps morphed over the years, that same spirit of playfulness – and of not taking things particularly seriously – marked their composition process too. In the beginning, according to McCartney, they would be given a two-week break from endless touring, and that would be the time he and Lennon had to write their next album. They’d just hang out together and jam, knocking off, in Lennon’s words, ‘songs à la Everly Brothers, à la Buddy Holly, pop songs with no more thought of them than that – to create a sound. And the words were almost irrelevant.’ You hear it in the music too, don’t you? Their debut album, Please Please Me, doesn’t strike me as profoundly good music, but it’s such a joy to listen to – part of what we're hearing is just their 'unfettered joy at making music', as Rolling Stone's Steve Pond has said. Listen to those opening notes of ‘I Saw Her Standing There’. This is sheer joy, isn’t it? That album was recorded in one day, basically. And what about that title, hey? Please Please Me. What 13-year-old gave them that one? I should say, I'm partly thinking now of an old essay of mine on the comedy writer Douglas Adams, a huge Beatles fan incidentally, who thought you get the best work in any given field when people are 'incredibly creative in it, just because they love it to bits and think it’s the greatest fun you can possibly have' and who characterised playfulness as essentially exploration of 'what the human mind can do'. Of course the finer expressions of the Beatles' remarkable playfulness came later, and at a time when they did dedicate a lot longer to the composition and recording processes – in songs like ‘I Am the Walrus’ or the Abbey Road medley, and moments like the one in ‘Honey Pie’ when McCartney starts meta-singing, or their musically just-right nonsensical remarks and giggling in ‘Hey Bulldog’ or the ‘Step Inside Love/Los Paranoias’ demo. One of the more striking things about Peter Jackson's recent documentary series Get Back, which of course shows the band creating what turned out to be their last album, is how much of its runtime shows the Beatles just messing around, singing improvised comedy versions of the songs they were crafting/refining/rehearsing, and of any other songs that came to mind too, cracking joke after joke over and through the music. At one point, Lennon and McCartney gleefully sing the whole of 'Two of Us' without once unclenching their teeth. I'm thinking these zany antics serve at least three functions. First, they just up the energy in the room, lift the mood, bring some joy. Second, they enable the band to, without getting too bored, learn the material, drum it into themselves, get their hands and their heads intimately familiar with it, such that they can then work with it on a more instinctive level. Third, they generate off-the-wall ideas for lyrical or musical improvements to that material, or at the very least an atmosphere and states of mind in which such off-the-wall ideas come naturally. It's kind of magical, watching note-perfect rock classics emerge from this giggly chaos. By the way, George Martin’s negative assessment of the Beatles' musicianship on the day he decided to give them a record deal was not to be their last such assessment. The great producer Quincy Jones once said the Beatles were 'the worst musicians in the world' and 'no-playing motherfuckers'. Indeed, the Beatles' own assessments of their playing abilities were not all that glowing either. In a 1963 interview with the BBC, McCartney said, 'George is the one of us who is interested in the instrument, the other three of us are more interested in the sound of the group'. Harrison then responded doubtfully: 'To be a guitarist, you’re supposed to practice a couple of hours a day, but, I mean, I don’t do that.' Starr then came in with: 'To be anything, you’re supposed to practice a couple of hours a day'. Harrison concluded: 'Well you know, I mean, the thing is . . . individually we’re all . . . I suppose we’re all crummy musicians, really.' Years later, in his 1980 interview with Playboy, Lennon expressed the same essential view, though as part of an interestingly balanced account. Asked his opinion of Starr's drumming, he said,
'Ringo is a damn good drummer. He is not technically good, but I think Ringo's drumming is underrated the same way Paul's bass playing is underrated. Paul was one of the most innovative bass players ever. And half the stuff that is going on now is directly ripped off from his Beatles period. He is an egomaniac about everything else about himself, but his bass playing he was always a bit coy about. I think Paul and Ringo stand up with any of the rock musicians. Not technically great... none of us are technical musicians. None of us could read music. None of us can write it. But as pure musicians, as inspired humans to make the noise, they are as good as anybody.'
That idea of 'inspired humans to make the noise' seems to me pretty crucial here. Somewhere else, I found Lennon saying something like, give him a cello, or an oboe, or some other instrument he certainly didn't play, and he would get you a song out of it, as that's just what he does. I totally trust he would. It's perhaps not observed enough that technical mastery of the playing of an instrument and the ability to create great music with that instrument come apart, and in fact, in some cases, quite far part. I suspect that a lot of people never attempt to do any serious creating in any artform partly just because they have this misconception that they'd first have to really master - to an extremely high level - its technical ways and means. It's not about that though! Not so much! It's more about things like being awake to and really alive with the feelings running through you (whatever they may be), loving the medium, feeling somehow at home in it, being eager to explore and learn in it, and just trying - taking that step! Having a real go! Not giving up when your first attempts come out kind of shit. Then again, I shouldn't underplay the importance of mastery of craft. You could say there's the craft of playing any particular instrument and then there's the craft of composing songs, and, while there's some overlap, these are fundamentally distinct, and it was the latter craft the Beatles really excelled at. There's truth in that, though I think that the points made towards the end of the last paragraph apply just as much to the craft of song composition as to that of playing an instrument, and that the distinction between the two crafts probably collapses under close inspection more than might be supposed. I mean, to play a song involves, it seems to me, many minute acts of composition - if you're playing a song you know, the notes and the rough spaces between them are a given, but you determine the exact spaces between them, as well as their exact volume, length and particular timbre. There's a technical and a non-technical element to both crafts, of course. The other thing you could say here is that the Beatles were actually, most of the time, and in most ways, far from crummy musicians. You only have to watch the rooftop concert, for instance, to see that they could play damn well. They of course practised both the craft of song composition and that of playing instruments, with their mastery of the one reinforcing their mastery of the other. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers: The Story of Success, gives the Beatles as one of his main examples of his 10 000-hour rule of mastery, citing the huge number of gigs they did, mostly in Hamburg, before they'd written so much as a single hit. The fact is the Beatles did, especially at the start, spend a hell of a lot of time performing, getting acquainted with their instruments, testing their songs and their playing on live audiences. Playing-wise, they were possibly not in their best shape, and surely not at their historical peak, when they had that audition with George Martin. No doubt it later made a good story too, emphasising how they’d played so badly. Quincy Jones was, I’m sure, also very aware of what a sensationalist remark he was making. But I have no trouble believing that it was not the Beatles' musicianship that got them that record deal, and that their technical playing ability was never anything out of the ordinary. Rather it was what they were as people, how they were together, their energy, their expressiveness – and perhaps above all, their playfulness. 3.
Many music critics have commented on the extraordinary chemistry and balance of the Beatles. Watch A Hard Day’s Night if you want to see that chemistry and balance expressed most clearly, and perhaps exaggeratedly: ‘winsome Paul, witty John, thoughtful George, goofy Ringo’, as one fan, Carolyn See, put it. Water, fire, wind, and air, others have said. Reviewing the Let It Be documentary, which shows the band apparently on the verge of fragmentation, Penelope Gilliatt spoke of ‘the breaking apart of this reassuring, geometrically perfect, once apparently ageless family of siblings’. That phrase ‘geometrically perfect’ sticks in my head.
Of course it’s particularly the chemistry and balance between Lennon and McCartney, the songwriting duo at the group’s core, that comes under the spotlight. Here’s a great passage from Craig Brown’s recent book One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time:
‘Their recording engineer Geoff Emerick watched the two of them at work. ‘They couldn’t have been two more different people – Paul was meticulous and organised, he always carried a notebook around with him in which he methodically wrote down lyrics and chord changes. In contrast, John seemed to live in chaos – was constantly searching for scraps of paper that he’d scribbled hurried ideas on.’ Paul was baby-faced, meticulous, diplomatic, out-going, cheery, sentimental; John was angular, slap-dash, maudlin, difficult, lazy, cool. Paul considered himself lovable; John believed himself unlovable. Paul once tried to explain how the two of them had become what they were: ‘John, because of his upbringing, and his unstable family life, had to be hard, witty, always ready for the cover-up, ready for the riposte, whereas with my rather comfortable upbringing, a lot of family, very Northern, ‘cuppa tea, love?’, my surface grew to be easy-going, put people at their ease – mentally, no one could say much to hurt me; whereas with John, his dad wasn’t home, so it was, ‘where’s ya dad, ya bastard?’, and his mother lived with somebody, and that was called ‘living in sin’ in those days, so that was another cheap shot against him. John had a lot to guard against and it formed his personality. He had massive hang-ups from his upbringing.’ As John saw it, when they were composing together, Paul ‘provided the lightness and optimism, while I would always go for sadness and discords and a certain bluesy edge’. It was this finely balanced, push-me-pull-you tension that made their greatest music so expressive.’
I love this passage, as a neat little study of how two different creative personalities can complement each other, but, in addition, as an account of how great strengths can be built from love and happiness, and also from pain and difficulty.
I think it’s worth adding though that it was not just these complementary dynamics that made their work so strong, but also, more so, and inseparably, the strength and depth of the relationship between the two of them. It was a friendship of mutual fascination, of deeply-felt rivalry, and, ultimately, I think, of great love.
Some of Lennon and McCartney’s love songs (or parts of their love songs, anyway) make more sense when understood as about each other than as about their romantic partners – ‘Two of Us’ comes to mind as a particularly clear example. In the Get Back sessions, Lennon even makes this observation himself. Their post-Beatles songs about each other also have the ring and intensity of post-break-up romantic songs, from McCartney’s tender ‘Dear Friend’ to Lennon’s bitter ‘How Do You Sleep?’. Asked about the latter, Lennon answered: ‘if you can’t criticise your best friend, who can you criticise?’ McCartney said, at one point, that he had had two real partners in his life, Linda McCartney and John Lennon. Lennon had not made music with McCartney for around a decade when he was killed in 1980, but Art Garfunkel recently said that Lennon confided him that he was tempted to team up with McCartney again as early as '75, and Yoko Ono has said that he had been speaking, shortly before his death, of his strong desire to work with him again. Lennon left behind tapes with ‘for Paul’ written on them; differing from mainstream opinion, I find the demos on those tapes – particularly ‘Now and Then’ and ‘Real Love’ – some of the most hauntingly beautiful music Lennon ever wrote. Lennon, before recording his last solo album, had been intentionally out of the music business for four or five years, and it seems he returned to it after becoming a bit obsessed with McCartney’s song ‘Coming Up’, and concluding that, now Paul was making great music again, he had to as well. McCartney, for his part, once mentioned Lennon’s late solo song ‘Beautiful Boy’ as the record he’d take with him to a desert island if he could only take one.
I think that part of why Lennon and McCartney made so much great music during the Beatles years, and less, at a slower rate, after is that, having been writing and making music together from a young age, every song they wrote, and every bit of every song, was also a move in their relationship with one another – in consequence, they had additional and special motivation in everything they wrote, as well as other kinds of mutually given inspiration. I mean, for instance, I find that, even if the subject matter is identical, it’s generally easier to write an email to a close friend than it is to write an essay for an essentially unknown audience, and there’s likely to be more colour and richness in the resulting text too – and I think that’s all because personal relationships provide prompts and motivation in the writing process, which an attitude to a comparatively unknown audience doesn’t so easily. The same dynamic surely plays out in songwriting. So, for Paul, writing a song with John, or even just with John very much in mind – his judgment, his potential contributions, the personality and life these were coming from – was different from writing a song essentially alone; it was, as a said, also a move in their personal relationship, and meaningful as such. After the Beatles years, their relationship grew more distant and that dynamic was a lot weaker.
By the way, it seems to me that most of Harrison’s greatest Beatles-era songs also come absolutely out of the relationships within the group – those relationships not only were operative in the crafting of those songs, but provided the emotional substance or force of those songs. (e.g. ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, ‘Here Comes the Sun’, ‘All Things Must Pass’, 'I Me Mine', ‘Run of the Mill’.)
I think the basic lesson here is that having our artistic practice embedded in relationships is so important. I’m not thinking of just making art with others, but also for others, about others, in answer to others, and with the hearts and minds of others active in our hearts and minds.
The Beatles was a four-piece band, with three great singer-songwriters in it. The third of course was Harrison. Harrison, notably, started songwriting in earnest quite a while after Lennon and McCartney did. He contributed only one song to their first four albums, and it wasn’t a great one. But then quite quickly he got extremely good at it, and, by the time the band broke up, he was, I think, the equal of both Lennon and McCartney. Indeed, his solo career stands comparison with either of theirs, in my opinion.
What I want to flag up here is his reasoning as he began trying to write songs. I think I first heard him explain this reasoning in a bit of interview shown in Martin Scorsese’s wonderful documentary George Harrison: Living in a Material World. He said something like: if these two idiots can do it, anyone can. I love that. He knew them in all their inaneness. He’d seen them do things like get deported from West Germany for setting fire to a condom, seen them at their stupidest and pettiest right back to when they were ordinary kids in suburban Liverpool. Not that they exhibited more stupidity and pettiness than others – just the normal amount, more-or-less. And he'd had a front-row view of it. He’d also seen them, over the years, learn how to write songs, making some pretty terrible ones along the way. Basically, their genius had no mystique for him.
I don’t believe in what I’ll call the blessed mutant theory of artistic genius – that is, I don’t believe great artists are, generally speaking, creatures set apart from the rest of us by exceptional gifts of natural aptitude. I’m not gonna deny that there’s such a thing as natural aptitude, of course, but aptitude is multiform. There might be some core strengths that are necessary, but plenty of different kinds of aptitude can underlie flourishing in any given artform. Lennon and McCartney, between them, perhaps showcase this fact. Of course great artists do have natural aptitude for their artforms, but so do millions of others who get nowhere in them, and what really sets the great artists apart is the extremely lucky convergence on them of environmental forces. Or that’s how it looks to me, anyway. Harrison had natural aptitude like Lennon and McCartney, and, sharing many of their circumstances, he benefited from many of the same converging environmental forces too.
The Beatles had a few years of being nobodies, rehearsing in garages, performing night-after-night in dingy little clubs, playing mainly covers and forgettable self-penned imitations. Then they got their record deal with Parlophone/EMI, went straight to number one in the charts and stayed there. Just stayed there. Everything they did turned to gold. Every record they released was a hit. Everywhere they went they were adored. Pre-adolescent girls screamed their names and music professors wrote analyses of their songs. (Have you seen that lovely clip of Leonard Bernstein trying to explain to classical audiences why they should be paying attention to the Beatles?) Their sales figures broke record after record. The critics hailed every new album as a breakthrough. They achieved first after first, and of every conceivable kind – first foreign band to really break America, first (and, so far, only) artists ever to hold the top five places on the Billboard Hot 100 simultaneously, first musical artists to give a concert in a sports stadium, first living people to be the main characters in a cartoon series, first rock and roll band to be nominated for and to win the Grammy for Best Album, first pop musicians of any kind to be decorated by the Queen, etc. Not to mention the innumerable new recording techniques they used in their work.
A simplistic view would be that this was all just a measure of how talented they were. I think rather that the unprecedented adulation and public belief in them was integral to their ability to do what they did. It enthused their playfulness and other artistic capacities with a remarkable confidence – a feeling that they could do anything, more-or-less. I have read that the two strongest predictors of students' performances in school are their estimation of their own ability and their teachers’ estimation of their ability. I think also of how C. L. R. James speaks, in his book Beyond a Boundary, about the legendary Victorian cricketer W. G. Grace:
‘He was strong with the strength of men who are fulfilling a social need.’
Some have said the sudden emergence of Beatlemania in the US was, for many there, an escape from the national gloom that had followed the assassination of Kennedy a couple of months earlier. The band were soon, of course, the foremost pin-ups of the whole Swinging Sixties phenomenon and then the countercultural movement.
‘Anyone who has participated in an electoral campaign or observed closely key figures in it will have noted how a speaker, eyes red with sleeplessness and sagging with fatigue, will rapidly recover all his power at an uproarious welcome from an expectant crowd. If Grace could be so often and so long at his best it was because so much depended on it, so many hundreds of thousands of people, high and low, were expecting him to be at his best, even to exceed it, as he had so often done in the past. Except for commonplaces and pseudo-scientific misuse of terms (father image), we know as yet very little of the nourishment given to the hero by the crowd.’
This is surely a good account of a central dynamic in what, particularly before the band’s post-'66 retreat to the studios, kept them going – through more than 1400 gigs in a few shorts years, plus innumerable interviews and other TV and radio appearances and two feature film productions, and enabled them, at the same time, to keep churning out new material at a rate unthinkable to most contemporary recording artists, nearly all of it not just good but, well, game-changingly brilliant.
‘[He] was sustained and lifted higher than ever before by what has been and always will be the most potent of all forces in our universe – the spontaneous, unqualified, disinterested enthusiasm and goodwill of a whole community.’
The Beatles had the spontaneous, unqualified, disinterested enthusiasm and goodwill of a whole world, pretty much – and to an extent that perhaps no one else had before. (And maybe no else has since.)
In the summer of 1966, the Beatles made the unanimous decision to simply stop touring, stop playing live at all. It was, to many, a shocking decision. What kind of musicians don’t give concerts?? And, obviously, there were almost no limits to the demand for live performances by them, and thus the money they could make through touring. Certainly it was a decision they made with some regret – mostly just because of how much they’d loved performing live in the beginning. As Jordan Runtagh explained in Rolling Stone:
‘Playing for a crowd had once been their lifeblood, but fame had robbed them of everything that made it joyful and fulfilling. The sporting arenas were too big and the screams of an adoring audience were too loud for the 100-watt Vox amplifiers to manage. Stadium rock was in its infancy, and even basic equipment like foldback speakers had yet to be invented. Unable to hear themselves, their musicianship began to atrophy. [...] At least the audience couldn’t hear how ragged they had become – not that they would have cared. “The sound at our concerts was always bad. We would be joking with each other on stage just to keep ourselves amused,” remembered Harrison in the Anthology. Lennon took particular delight in making vaguely obscene alterations to their song lyrics (“I Wanna Hold Your Gland”), knowing full well that no one had any clue what he was saying. “It was just a sort of a freak show,” he later said. “The Beatles were the show, and the music had nothing to do with it.” The boredom of playing the same dozen songs each day also began to grate on the group’s notoriously short attention span. Making matters worse, most of the tunes were several years old. Much of their recent work was enhanced by backing musicians and innovative studio techniques, making it simply too challenging to perform given the technical limitations of a live setting.’
This was all in addition to the general chaos and hysteria and consequent danger that had, also as a straight consequence of their extreme fame, come to pursue them on tours. It wasn’t just stampeding besotted girls – they’d had, for instance, the KKK after them for their godlessness, and been chased out of the Philippines by a nationalistic mob for turning down a lunch invite from its dictatorial first family. What’s more, they’d just done so damn much touring – they always had; and now the tows of expectation and money had become so strong. (I haven’t actually seen yet Ron Howard’s recent documentary Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years, but I’m sure it tells this story, among others. The title of the song ‘Eight Days a Week’ was of course originally a complaint about overworking, through whether it was Ringo’s complaint or that of Paul’s chauffeur has been disputed.) They were exhausted, basically. They were feeling oppressed, thwarted in their attempts to live the kinds of lives they wanted to, pursue their interests, develop as people. They wanted to get away from it all.
It seems to me that this decision of theirs was just such a good one. They had already made huge strides, musically, in their last couple of albums, but it was from this point on that their really astonishingly creative period began – the period when they seemed to invent multiple new genres with every album they released. (‘The Beatles are getting awfully strange these days,’ as the Queen memorably put it.)
Almost immediately after the end of that last tour, Harrison went to India to study yoga and sitar, Lennon went to Spain to star in an arthouse WWII film, and McCartney explored the countercultural scene in London, before, still feeling weighed down by his fame, getting professionally kitted out with a wig and a false nose, and going incognito on a road trip through France. The impacts of these experiences are plain to see in the Beatles’ music. Most obviously, McCartney’s experience of adopting another persona directly inspired the concept of Sgt. Pepper – the Beatles adopting the persona of another band. The freedom from touring also meant that they did not have a definite deadline when working on that album – they spent about five months recording it; for other artists, they showed what you can do when you have five months to record your album.
And what followed was more travel, experiments with meditation and Eastern religion, increased political activism, increased engagement with other artforms, the founding of their own record label, efforts to nurture the talent of other bands and singers, many crazy business ventures, greater dedication to their families and, in Lennon and McCartney’s cases, new and consuming romances. I’m not saying they wouldn’t have headed in any of these directions at all if they’d continued touring, but certainly the time that they now had, they filled with this stuff. We’d perhaps all do well to ask ourselves whether there’s, in our own lives, anything like what touring was for the Beatles.
There are a whole bunch of answers that are standardly given to the question of why the Beatles broke up. Some emphasise how they were growing apart, personally and artistically. Others speak of the darker sides of fame and fortune at last taking their toll. An alarmingly large number of fans seem to lay the blame squarely at Yoko Ono’s door. No doubt there were many factors, but I’m struck by how often I have come across comments from the Beatles themselves, and others close to the group, identifying the main root cause as the death of Brian Epstein in August 1967. 'Daddy's gone away now, and we're on our own at the holiday camp,' as McCartney put it during a bit of a monologue on this at a difficult moment in the Get Back sessions.
Epstein was their manager. He’d scouted them before they were famous, professionalised them, and steered them through the years of their rapid and continuous ascent. There had been bumps in his relationship with the band, of course, but, basically, he was a friend to all of them, trusted by all of them, respected by all of them. He was Jewish and gay, incidentally. Epstein was 32 at the time of his death. It was apparently a combination of alcohol and carbrital pills, taken to help him sleep, that did it. The coroner ruled it was an accidental death, but some have doubted that, and not without foundation – according to one close friend of Epstein’s, he’d expressed suicidal feelings before, and even gone so far as to write a suicide note, saying ‘This is all too much and I can't take it any more’. (I've often wondered whether those words were in Harrison's mind when he wrote 'It's All Too Much'.)
The band were on a transcendental meditation retreat in Wales when they got the news. The plan had been for Epstein to join them there shortly. Lennon recalled, 'We collapsed. I knew that we were in trouble then. I didn't really have any misconceptions about our ability to do anything other than play music, and I was scared. I thought, 'We've fuckin' had it now.'' Pattie Boyd, Harrison’s wife, said that 'Paul and George were in complete shock. I don't think it could have been worse if they had heard that their own fathers had dropped dead.'
Afterwards came a far greater focus for the four of them on the business side of what they were doing, and many very unwise business decisions, as well as growing disagreements and power struggles, and a hole where their common sense of direction had once been, as well as, of course, a deep sadness, about the loss of this shared and very dear friend.
Epstein is a particularly clear case, but no doubt many others, off-stage and not very well remembered, played important roles in building and sustaining the Beatles, and no doubt many of them incurred heavy burdens in the process. I regret to see a tendency to largely write these kinds of people out of the popular stories of great achievements and to focus obsessively on the greatness of isolated individuals, implicitly crediting them with so much that really was the work of others. I’m doubtful respective contributions could even, in the final analysis, really be distinguished. In any case, we should, shouldn’t we, be very careful to appreciate these people in our lives, the people who, in innumerable ways, make it possible for us to do what good we do. Not that I’m saying the Beatles didn’t appreciate Brian Epstein enough before his death. That's not something I feel able to judge.
The recording sessions for the Beatles’ last three studio albums – the White Album, Abbey Road, and Let It Be – involved a lot of unhappiness, a lot of division, ill-feeling and grinding hard work. The Get Back documentary series has shown that the recording sessions for Let It Be, long believed to be the most fractious and miserable of the lot, also involved a lot of shared joy, especially after the move from Twickenham to Apple Studio and the arrival of Billy Preston in their midst. Still, the series does also very clearly show that division, ill-feeling and grinding hard work, coming very close to derailing the sessions and breaking up the band at times, and some commentators have even criticised the series for leaving out scenes showing Lennon’s heroin addiction and bullying the other Beatles subjected Yoko Ono to. To say the least, all was not well in the Beatles family in this time. The problems were both personal and musical, though there is perhaps, again, not a wholly clear distinction between the two.
Certainly it’s not like any of the Beatles had lost confidence in their music-making ability – but they were often dissatisfied with their efforts to record and produce what they had in mind, as well as with each other’s priorities and demands, with the conditions in which they were working, and with all sorts of plans and arrangements in the background.
It’s not like they had stopped being playful either – you can hear a great variety of astonishing play on those albums, from the childish (‘Octopus’s Garden’) to the philosophical (‘Happiness Is a Warm Gun’). And, as previously discussed, you can see them being extremely playful through a lot of Get Back. Play was central to how the four of them functioned as human beings, I’m sure, and in the bad times as well as the good. It's notable, for instance, how Lennon’s endless free-association gags continue through the happy and the sad moments alike in the series.
Finally, it’s not like they had stopped having particularly deep and meaningful relationships with each other, only those depths and meanings were turning darker now, slowly but surely, and with plenty of temporary reversions and exceptions. Those relationships were still, it seems to me, generating the most powerful music of those albums – but it was mostly music expressive, if sometimes obliquely and perhaps sometimes even unconsciously, of straight pain at how things were ending up, nostalgia for what was lost, attempts to deal with it and become reconciled to it ( ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ ‘Let It Be’, ‘Because’, ‘Get Back’, ‘Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End’, 'Come Together', ‘The Long and Winding Road’, ‘Across the Universe’, ‘All Things Must Pass’).
I think that, on balance, these albums, or at least the White Album and Abbey Road, are their best – they have a gravity and a depth to them that even the masterpieces of their middle years (Rubber Soul, Revolver, and Sgt. Pepper) don’t, or at least not to anything like the same degree. It surely helped that the Beatles’ spiritual and political interests had, by that point, had longer to develop, and that they were, in a straightforward sense, at their most musically mature, but I think the most important factor was again ‘collateral beauty’ (for want of a better term) – they were losing each other, losing what they shared, and, when we are losing things, we feel their importance so fully, so intensely. At one point in the Get Back documentary series, Paul and Ringo fall silent and seem to go teary-eyed, just thinking about the end of the Beatles. Great art’s most vital ingredient, its motive force, is perhaps precisely that: the feeling of things mattering. It’s maybe the tragedy of great art that great loss is so often, if sometimes in indirect ways, integral to its birth, though this is certainly tied up in wider tragedies of life: youth being wasted on the young, not knowing what we have until it’s gone, etc. I don’t, I should say, think such tragedies are wholly inevitable, and I don’t think great loss is the only route to great art. Meditation, which I think can take many forms, is one kind of answer here. The Beatles were into that too, of course. And there are other kinds – love in its acuter forms, all manner of experiences and activities that put us in the zone, in the moment. Great loss is perhaps just one of the easier routes, one of the most automatic.
There is, I think, no simple practical-emotional prescription for making great art. The contrast between the Beatles’ joyously, easily made early work and their often painfully, difficultly made later work helps illustrate this. That later work also illustrates very well a point Stephen King makes nicely in his nonfiction book On Writing:
‘stopping a piece of work just because it's hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea. Sometimes you have to go on when you don't feel like it, and sometimes you're doing good work when it feels like all you're managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.’
9. A final element of the Beatles’ story that really stands out for me these days is the unusually close and clear affinity there was between the Beatles and their times. The band was formed in 1960, and it broke up practically over the course of 1969 and officially at the start of 1970 – that is, it came and went with the 60s. If that’s a pretty fun fact, here’s another that’s even more fun: for their Decca Records audition on New Year’s Day, 1962, the Beatles performed a song called ‘Money (That’s What I Want)’, a Barrett Strong cover, opening with the line, ‘The best things in life are free, but you can keep 'em for the birds and bees; now give me money, that's what I want, that's what I want’. They later recorded it for their 1963 album With the Beatles. Then, in March 1964, they had a huge international hit with ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’, with the recurring line, ‘I don’t care too much for money, money can’t buy me love’. That was on A Hard Day’s Night, of course. Then in the summer of 1967 – a.k.a. ‘the Summer of Love’ – the Beatles had another huge international hit with ‘All You Need Is Love’. They debuted it on June 25th, representing the UK on the unique Our World, the first ever live global TV link. (June 25th is now Global Beatles Day, by the way.) The song lists a bunch of potentially difficult spiritual tasks, but assures each can be done, and announces in the chorus, ‘all you need is love, love, love is all you need’. It’s neat, na? ‘Money (That’s What I Want)’ – ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’ – ‘All You Need is Love’. But it’s more than neat, and more than a fun fact, because of course, in some way, and with some level of depth, it represents both their own moral-emotional development, and that of the culture they were part of. Here’s another such representation: when the Beatles first properly appeared on the scene in 1963/64, they wore identical and impeccable black suits; they had those near-identical bob haircuts too. It was a carefully crafted respectable but slightly edgy look. By late 1968, Lennon, together with Yoko Ono, appeared long-haired and completely naked on the front cover of their experimental album Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins. The Beatles went, quickly and personally, through a series of major cultural upheavals that were happening as they came of age, beginning by blending mod and rocker traits (‘I’m a mocker’, as I think Ringo put it in an interview), then becoming involved in the emerging hippy scene and everything around it, from hallucinogenic drugs (‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’, ‘Doctor Robert’, 'Got to Get You into My Life', ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!’, ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’), to the sexual revolution (‘Why Don’t We Do It In the Road?’, ‘Happiness is a Warm Gun’, ‘Come Together’), the Eastern spirituality craze (‘The Inner Light’, ‘Within You Without You’, ‘Across the Universe’, ‘My Sweet Lord’), ‘Love Train’ internationalism (‘Back in the USSR’, ‘Imagine’, ‘Get Back’ in its early versions), the environmental awakening perhaps referenced in the 'flower power' slogan (‘Mother Nature’s Son’, ‘Child of Nature’), the anti-war movement and the revolutionary spirit of ‘68 (‘Revolution’, ‘Piggies’, ‘Give Peace a Chance’, 'Gimme Some Truth'). Even the Civil Rights Movement they were involved in, most obviously with the song ‘Blackbird’, and with their very open debt to and many covers of black artists, through which they helped introduce wider audiences to black music, plus their refusal to play to segregated audiences in the US south, and of course their frequent teaming up with black artists (from touring with the Ronettes, to signing Doris Troy to their record label and working on her eponymous album, to their collaborations with Billy Preston on parts of Let It Be and Abbey Road and for the rooftop concert). I wonder whether there has ever been another time in history when there’s been such a surge – of hope, of belief that the world can be changed for the better, of togetherness, and of boundary-pushing creativity. There’s this great passage in Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas where he talks about this very special moment in history:
‘There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning... And that, I think, was the handle — that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn't need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting — on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave... So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke, and rolled back.’
You absolutely hear it in the music of that time too – this surge of joy, hope, togetherness. I think, first, of course, of some of the other great and explicit anthems of this movement: Thunderclap Newman’s ‘Something in the Air’, Buffalo Springfield’s ‘For What’s It Worth’, The 5th Dimension’s ‘The Age of Aquarius (Let the Sunshine In)’. Another sort of very clear example comes in the form of Soul bands of the time like The Four Tops and The Temptations, who could sing about sad things and still sound totally joyous. The Beatles were kind of similar in that respect. I mentioned how striking it is that, despite all the difficulties – emotional and otherwise – of making their last three albums, they ended up such great albums. It’s equally striking that, despite how much pain and darkness and division there were in the internal dynamics of the band during the period those albums were made, they ended up such essentially warm, upbeat, inspirational-sounding albums, with songs that don’t fit that kind of description really quite few and far between. Of course the internal dynamics of the band were only one important element in the lives of the four Beatles – they were also each on their own personal journey, and embedded in a broader context of collective thinking and feeling. Here's a bit from an interview that Lennon did with ATV in December 1969 (and that I came across in the Hall and Byron documentary John Lennon: Love Is All You Need):
'I'm full of optimism because of the contacts I've made personally throughout the world... knowing that there's other people around that I can agree with, you know, I'm not insane and I'm not alone. That's just on a personal level. And of course, the Woodstock, Isle of Wight, all the mass meetings of the youth... it's completely positive for me. Now we're all getting to know it. We're all showing our flags, you know. And when you show your flag, you're not alone. It's like, we've no need to be a few christian martyrs because there's lots of us. And don't be afraid because they do look after ya, whoever's up there, if you get on with it. And I'm completely positive. And when I'm negative, I've got Yoko - who is just as strong as me. And it helps, you know. And this is only the beginning. This sixties bit was just a sniff. The sixties was just waking up in the morning, and we haven't even got to dinner time yet. And I can't wait, you know, I just can't wait. I'm so glad to be around. And it's just gonna be great and there's gonna be more and more of us. And whatever you're thinking there, Mrs Grundy of Birmingham on toast, you know, you don't stand a chance! A) You're not gonna be there when we're running it, and B) You're gonna like it when you get less frightened of it. And it's gonna be wonderful, and I believe it. Of course we all get depressed and down about it, but when I'm down, or when John and Yoko's down, Desmond will be up or somebody else will be up. There's always somebody carrying the flag or beating the drum, you know. So they, whoever they are, don't stand a chance because they can't beat love. Because all those old bits from religion about love being all-powerful is true, you know. And that's the bit they can't do. They can't handle it.'
He's so in that world Thompson describes, isn't he? He's so caught up in that moment in history, 'riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave'. And yet... If only he knew, right?! If only he knew!! I remember this question being posed so strongly for me when I was a teenager, discovering all this 60s culture: what happened? What happened to the youth of the 60s? What became of them? What became of this vision and movement of theirs? How on earth did their reaching the kinds of ages when they could, presumably, start to hold power, start to really lead society, coincide with society lunging dramatically in almost the exact opposite direction to the one they'd been pushing in, and with hardly a backwards glance? I want to quote now quite extensively from Ian MacDonald’s book Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties, which is perhaps the most renowned work of Beatles scholarship, and in particular from its introductory essay, ‘Fabled Foursome, Disappearing Decade’. I want to give a sense of that essay’s argument, which strikes me as quite a profound one.
‘The truth is that the Sixties inaugurated a post-religious age in which neither Jesus nor Marx is of interest to a society now functioning mostly below the level of the rational mind in an emotional/physical dimension of personal appetite and private insecurity. These contradictions were unresolved in the Sixties, it being chiefly the clash between them which sparked the electricity millions then felt in the air.’
‘Far from appearing out of thin air in the Sixties, as many conservatives now like to believe, the decade’s mass-transition from sacred to secular represented a climactic stage in the historical rise of science. Over recent centuries, the Christian glue which once cemented Western society had been progressively weakened by the shocks of scientific discovery (the most catastrophic being the realisations that not only is the earth neither the centre of creation nor four thousand years old but that humanity is physically descended from the apes). With the arrival of the 20th century, the technological spinoffs of the scientific outlook became increasingly forceful in their social impact. During the 1914-18 war, the old order was brought close to collapse by the devastating invention of the machine-gun, surviving the disillusionment of the Twenties only because their Sixties-like tastes for novelty, promiscuity, and drugs were too much the indulgence of a privileged few to pose a general threat to stability. In the Sixties, however, socially liberating post-war affluence conspired with a cocktail of scientific innovations too potent to resist: TV, satellite communications, affordable private transport, amplified music, chemical contraception, LSD, and the nuclear bomb. For ordinary people – the true movers and shakers of the Sixties – these factors produced a restless sense of urgency headily combined with unprecedented opportunities for individual freedom. Abandoning a Christian world of postponed pleasure for a hungry secularism fed by technological conveniences, they effectively traded a hierarchical social unity in which each ‘knew his place’ for the personal rewards of a modern meritocracy.’
‘[...] The Beatles made quality of awareness the overriding topic of their work from Revolver onwards.’
‘[...] the mainstream continued with its acquisitive individualism, buying Beatles records for their tunes and tolerantly ignoring their lyrics. Thus, by a devilish paradox, those who thought they were at the cutting edge of social development in the Sixties – the hippies, the New Left – soon found themselves adrift in the wake of the real social avant-garde of the period: ordinary people. The individualism of the Me Decade, as Tom Wolfe dubbed the Seventies, was a creation of the Sixties' mass mainstream, not of the peripheral groups which challenged it. Former hippies and radicals who abandoned the utopian 'we' for rueful self-interest in the Seventies, far from leading public taste, were merely tagging along behind it.’
‘The truth is that, once the obsolete Christian compact of the Fifties had broken down, there was nothing – apart from, in the last resort, money – holding Western civilisation together. Indeed, the very labour-saving domestic appliances launched onto the market by the Sixties' consumer boom speeded the melt-down of communality by allowing people to function in a private world, segregated from each other by TVs, telephones, hi-fi systems, washing-machines and home cookers.’
‘A malignant rot has spread through the Western mind since the mid-Seventies: the virus of meaninglessness.’
‘The destabilising social and psychological evolution witnessed since the Sixties stems chiefly from the success of affluence and technology in realising the desires of ordinary people. The countercultural elements usually blamed for this were in fact resisting an endemic process of disintegration with its roots in scientific materialism. Far from adding to this fragmentation, they aimed to replace it with a new social order based on either love-and-peace or a vague anarchistic European version of revolutionary Maoism. When contemporary right-wing pundits attack the Sixties, they identify a momentous overall development but ascribe it to the very forces which most strongly reacted against it. The counterculture was less an agent of chaos than a marginal commentary, a passing attempt to propose alternatives to a waning civilisation.’
‘[...] even the New Right can't be held responsible for the multifocal and fragmented techno-decadence into which the First World is currently sinking as if into a babbling, twinkling, microelectronically pulsing quicksand. In the Nineties, the fashion is to reprove others for our own faults; yet even if we take the blame for ignoring our limitations and eroding our own norms over the last thirty years, it is hard to imagine much, short of fascism or a Second Coming, that will put Humpty back together again. The Sixties seem like a golden age to us because, relative to now, they were. At their heart, the countercultural revolt against acquisitive selfishness – and, in particular, the hippies’ unfashionable perception that we can change the world only by changing ourselves – looks in retrospect like a last gasp of the Western soul. Now radically disunited, we have become dominated by and addicted to gadgets, our raison d’être and sense of community unfixably broken. While remnants of our once-stable core of religious faith survive, few are very edifying. Till hard drugs are legalised, the old world will retain some moral hold on us; but when they are, as the dictates of vulgar pragmatism predict, the last ties will be cut with our former way of life, far away from us on the other side of the sun-flooded chasm of the Sixties - where, courtesy of scientific technology, The Beatles can still be heard singing their buoyant, poignant, hopeful, love-advocating songs.’
It’s a pretty sweeping argument, of course. I don’t know about you though; in the end it rings disturbingly true to me, at least in its essentials. It is not as if there aren’t moments of great happiness and togetherness that come along in our societies these days, nor as if there aren’t some who live healthy, spiritually rich lives, nor as if there aren’t many lauble and sometimes successful drives to improve things in one way or another... but, as an aggregate (not to say a collective), we do seem to be in a pretty bleak place now, and that was even before the pandemic. MacDonald was writing in the early 90s. It looks to me like most elements of the malaise he describes are far more advanced now. Especially the rise of mobile phones, social media, surveillance capitalism and algorithmically-driven online lives have pushed things forward, as have, of course, ever-growing tendencies for families and communities to disperse across countries and across the world as their individual members pursue jobs and better lives. Oh there are many more factors, I’m sure, nor is it clear which of these factors I’ve mentioned are more causes and which are more effects, but the point is: have we ever been more fragmented and lonely? And with fragmentation and loneliness, a lot of rich meaning goes too, I think – the rich meaning there is in personal connections, with other individuals and with communities. People fill that void of meaning, I think, in many semi-effective ways. Lonely and short on the purposes we get from our roles in personal relationships and communities and therefore short also on the satisfaction we get from serving those purposes, we instead we buy and buy, we feather our nests, and get satisfaction from that, or we lose ourselves in drink and drugs, or we desperately pursue fame or career advancement or wealth, or we obsess over the fictional or celebrity worlds we see on our screens, perhaps identifying, from a distance, with some sporting/cultural/political/national tribe, taking sustenance from its every success, in the absence of our own. The knock-on effects of all this must be immense. Meanwhile, and relatedly, we are facing ecological and climate catastrophe, the robots are coming for our jobs, whole new scales of inequality are emerging, technology is enabling new extremes of mass control and oppression, polarisation and animosity seem to be on the rise around the world, and our politics seem impotent to offer us narratives or effective policies to deal with any of this. What’s more, we seem to have largely lost the ability to talk, at a social level, about fundamental values, the values that religions once captured – instead, we make gestures of respect and insinuate relativism. Or else we just shout, and hear nothing. Our world needs saving! I’m not shy about saying that – it doesn’t seem to me a sensationalist or melodramatic remark. We need to save our world now. That will take movement-building! Mass organisation, requiring inspiration. New narratives, new visions and images, new ideas, new ways of expressing ourselves. It will take people throwing themselves into our struggles and telling of them through art. In this very individualistic age, there may be a tendency for art to focus on the self more – that’s not necessarily inconsistent with confronting the problems our world faces, but it might be, in some ways. This is something I’d like to think about and discuss more. Anyway, one thing that made the Beatles so strong – and that helps make their music resonate with audiences so much to this day – is that they were at the forefront of a real charge to build a better world, at a time when it felt that was possible. They also helped make it feel possible.