Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Beatles

I saw the Beatles second film “Help” recently which proved a nostalgic experience (having seen it originally at the time of its release in 1965). The plot seemed even more ridiculous than it did the 1st time around. However what rescued the whole thing for me were the superb songs like “Help”, “You’re Going to Lose that Girl”, “Ticket to Ride” and George’s “I Need You”. They sounded better than ever which possibly is due to the fact that the film has since been remastered. Indeed their entire catalogue has just been remastered with simultaneous releases of the Box Set and all the individual albums (including other single, B side and EP tracks).
Now in the first week of release no less than 11 of these are included in the UK Top 40 (40 years or more after the original recordings).

To my mind no other band even came close to the Beatles both in the quality and range of the output. Though occasional single tracks by other groups such as The Rolling Stones, Procul Harum, The Moody Blues and Queen may indeed be comparable with the best of the Beatles, in terms of their overall body of work I consider that they all fall well short of the Fab 4.

To be honest I was not really impressed with their debut single “Love Me Do” when it appeared in late 1962. I found it repetitive with somewhat banal lyrics and my opinion on this still remains the same (despite their subsequent success). However I really sat up and took notice with the follow-up “Please Please Me” which I rate one of their best and most exciting singles. Following that every new single was an eagerly anticipated event. And they rarely let us down with one great release after another. The only ones that I am not that mad about are strangely their two biggest hits “She Loves You” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and a couple of their later efforts “Paperback Writer” and “Lady Madonna”. Strangely - what I consider their very best release - i.e. “Penny Lane” coupled with “Strawberry Fields for Ever” proved commercially to be one of their least successful.

And then we had all the superb album releases starting such as “Please Please Me” “With the Beatles”, “A Hard Day’s Night”, “Beatles for Sale”, “Help”, “Rubber Soul”, “Revolver”, “Sergeant Pepper” “The White Album”, “Abbey Road” and “Let it Be”. Though I purchased most of these on their release sadly the only one that now remains in my possession is “Beatles for Sale” (very much underrated!)

What is truly remarkable is how this great body of work - the vast bulk of which comprises Lennon Mc Cartney originals - was all produced within a short 7 year period. Nowadays we think that a pop group is doing well if they manage to release an album every 4 years or so. However at their peak the Beatles were releasing brilliant 14 track albums every six months. At the same time they were regularly putting out singles and B sides (often not to be found on albums) and even EPs with additional material. Indeed so prolific were Lennon and McCartney that they also provided material for many other artists as for example most of Billy J. Kramer’s early successes such as his no 1 hit “Bad to Me” .
Peter and Gordon had a worldwide no 1 with “World without Love” and several other hits (penned by Paul).
Cilla Black’s first release was another Lennon McCartney composition “Love of the Loved” and also had a hit with “Just for You”.
The Fourmost - remember them - had a couple of hits with “Hello Little Girl” and “I’m in Love”. And the Applejacks “Like Dreamers Do” is yet another that comes readily to mind.

When you realise how busy the Beatles were at this time - for example they toured the US in three successive years (64, 65 and 66) - their prolific rate of both writing and recording was simply incredible! No doubt this quickly led to burnout with the writing already on the wall when they decided to quit touring altogether. John Lennon in particular was now seeking an identity outside the group while Paul McCartney wanted to assume a greater degree of control within. This inevitably led to a growing degree of conflict and rivalry which hastened the demise of the Beatles. Though Lennon was the clear leader in the beginning and composed most of their earlier material, the balance started to shift considerably when touring stopped with McCartney now coming to the fore. Both in quantity and quality of compositions he surpassed Lennon during this time.

Nearly all their compositions (jointly or solo) were credited to Lennon/McCartney. However in truth most were written largely or - often totally - as solo efforts. However the rivalry as between the two – who clearly were both brilliantly talented – kept raising the bar as they attempted to surpass previous efforts. Following the break up of the Beatles, despite notable exceptions - such as Lennon’s “Imagine”- neither reached previous heights.

Though technological sophistication has grown greatly in the last 40 years it has been greatly at the expense of creative endeavour. At the time of the Beatles groups would aim to put out 2 or 3 albums each year. Now it is more like an album every 3 or 4 years. In addition singles have lost any identity in themselves and are issued simply to promote albums when they at last arrive. Also the albums are used to market the inevitable world wide tour of the act in question. Then there is a slow build up to the release of the next album with often an inordinate amount of time required to produce pretty mediocre material.

No wonder nostalgia continues to grow for all the great acts of old such as the Abba and the Beatles. With few exceptions their material was much superior to today’s pretenders.

Favourite Track

With respect to John a favourite would be - perhaps surprisingly - “That Boy” which was the B side of “I Want to Hold your Hand”. In up tempo terms “Please, Please Me” is hard to beat.

As for Paul, though “Yesterday” is probably his most revered song, personally I never liked it!
However I think many of his later efforts are superb e.g. “Eleanor Rigby”, "Here There and Everywhere" (Revolver), “When I’m 64” (Sergeant Pepper) “Long and Winding Road” and “Let it Be” (Let it Be). However my favourite is “She’s Leaving Home” (also from Sergeant Pepper).

Strangely my favourite uptempo number of Paul - who was a great rocker - is “Long Tall Sally” Though not his own composition (but Little Richards’) his vocal is the best!

George Harrison

George operated in the shade of John and Paul for some time only came to the fore later. The two best tracks on Abbey Road I consider “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun”, both of which are superb.

Ringo Starr

Unfortunately Ringo lags behind in this company though his “Octupus’s Garden” (on Abbey Road) is enjoyable in a childish sort of way. However he was probably the most natural comic among the Beatles. And this is really saying something for as a group they were really funny - reminiscent of the Marx Brothers - which greatly contributed to their overall appeal.

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