Issue 192 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published December 1995 Copyright © Socialist Review
The Beatles are back in the news. Over 20 years since they broke up, there is a whole industry of Beatle re-releases, a new Beatle single, a bitter dispute between ex-Beatles and Michael Jackson over publishing rights, and a very in band, Oasis, who for all the world sound like the Beatles in their Sergeant Pepper! Abbey Road period.
So what is all the fuss about? Anyone hearing for the first time 'She Loves you Yeah Yeah Yeah', would most likely wonder how the composers and recorders of a frothy little pop song could generate such an amount of sound and fury, let alone have acquired a legendary status not matched by any group of popular musicians before or since.
It is hard listening to some of the early Beatles stuff today to understand what a breath of fresh air it unleashed, how it transformed the face of popular music at the time.
Yet it most certainly did. If like me you were born in the early/mid-1950s you really missed the excitement of rock and roll. By the time I began consciously listening to popular music, rock and roll had died a number of different deaths.
Death took a literal form in the early departures of Buddy Holly, Eddy Cochrane, the Big Bopper and so on. Death in the form of popular obscurity had been meted out to the likes of Gene Vincent, Chuck Berry and Bill Hayley, and death by commercial strangulation had taken most of what remained, particularly Elvis Presley.
Believe me, in the midst of all this 'Love Me Do','Please Please Me' and, yes, 'She Loves You' sounded so, so exciting. The sound was raw, energetic, joyful. Gone were the twee musical arrangements of Cliff Richard telling us about his 'Summer Holiday'.
Now here were four young men, just three guitars and a drum, and performing their own songs.
Not only that, they looked so different. I remember the shock and outrage at their long hair (which only looking back do you realise wasn't very long at all), their strange suits and their odd stance. It was all different, exciting and for a short time quite shocking.
It didn't take long for the music industry to package and sell them. Soon they were the loveable mop tops and (unlike the much nastier Rolling Stones) your parents began to like them. Indeed Harold Wilson, incorrigible old opportunist that he was, even gave them the MBE.
Yet the Beatles proved to be more than just this week's fashion. Their music developed and changed. They drew on the changes around them (notably the success of a very different singer, Bob Dylan) and in turn began to set the terms for the direction of popular music.
But by the mid to late 1960s the Beatles could no longer credibly be the wide eyed youngsters whose entire life's ambition was to 'hold your hand'. The Beatles were evolving musically, and in the case of one of them, John Lennon, politically.
At the heart of the Beatles' success lay the composing talents of John Lennon and Paul McCartney. In the early days they were a genuine writing team.
As they evolved, this musical collaboration became by and large a fiction. Most of the later famous Lennon/McCartney songs were in fact written by one or the other. A tension developed between them which for a time was creative, but ultimately destroyed the group.
Much is made of the suddenness of the impact of the Beatles Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, yet all the clues were there in songs like 'We Can Work It Out', and more obviously in 'Strawberry Fields Forever', and 'Eleanor Rigby'.
Despite this there is no doubt that Sergeant Pepper became the hallmark by which most popular music of the time was judged, forcing the old rhythm and blues masters, the Rolling Stones, to quickly try their version, and opening the door for more and more experimentation with musical sound--some of it shockingly bad, some marvellously innovative. The albums that followed, The White Album and Abbey Road, further enhanced their reputation, although by the time of Let It Be it is clear that the four could barely stand the sight of each other.
Their break up came over money, accountants, business interests and other such unsavoury elements of the capitalist music business, but it is also likely that their period of musical collaboration had run itself out.
Indeed the solo efforts that followed seemed to convey a joy at having the collective shackle removed. This seems especially true of Lennon, who had for a period become intensely political, against the Vietnam War, and drew close to the revolutionary left.
Unfortunately, Lennon's political protest moved away from revolution to mysticism and bizarre stunts, before he ended up a rather sad recluse, who had hit a musical cul-de-sac prior to his assassination.
McCartney, after a promising start with Wings' first album, Band on the Run, began to compose songs of such banality that it seems hard to believe he was once at the heart of a band that tore popular music apart.
Now the revival begins, just as the reality ended, in squabbles over money. Musical compositions and recordings become just another commodity bought and sold on the market.
Nevertheless it is good to hear them again. It will never be the same as the first time, but it's still great to look back and remember each new shock wave they sent through the music scene, and most of all to enjoy some great songs. Yeah, Yeah, Yeah.
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